Joy comes with the morning

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 54.1-10; Psalm 30.1-5, 11-end; Luke 7.24-30.

The writer of Psalm 30 rejoices because, having been near to death through sickness, he has found healing and new life. Nothing like a crisis to focus one’s mind on God. And nothing like a healing to draw out a promise of everlasting gratitude! I wonder whether the psalmist kept his promise?

Christians sometimes see intimations of resurrection in this psalm:

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee:
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain,
that morn shall tearless be.
George Matheson (1842-1906)

God, weal and woe

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 45.6b-8, 18, 21b-end; Psalm 85.7-end; Luke 7.18b-23.

Isaiah 45.7 is, for me, particularly difficult:

‘I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things’ (NRSV). It is all the more stark in the AV, ‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil’. The difficulty, of course, lies in the attribution to God of the creation of evil (and darkness). The Hebrew word is ra’ and it certainly can mean ‘evil’ (Psalm 23.4, ‘lo’ ‘ira’ ra’ — I will fear no evil’) but also ‘calamity’ or ‘disaster’. Such a distinction might help to absolve God of the responsibility for human moral evil but it does not appear particularly helpful in the immediate aftermath of a terrible natural disaster.

At any rate, Isaiah is not alone in his assertion. Similar ideas are found in Amos 3.6 and 4.13, and in Lamentations 3.38. It does help, I think, to remember that, for Isaiah, particular circumstances are in view. He is responding to the rise of Cyrus the Persian king who, though pagan, will engineer the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. Isaiah sees Cyrus as an instrument of God. Opposing the dualism of the religion of Persia, Isaiah asserts that all things remain under the purview of the One God. Isaiah, like the psalmist, looks not to the heavens and the earth, but to the creator of the heavens and the earth.

In the words of Karl Barth, it is not ‘that God positively willed, created and posited darkness in the same positive way as light or evil as peace, as an independent goal and event of His plan. . . [but that] . . . they are not what they are without Him, but only in opposition and therefore relation to Him.’ (Church Dogmatics III, 1:106)

Far better to believe that God is present in the darkness than to think God is confounded by it. As Nebuchadnezzar had been God’s instrument of Judgement, now Cyrus would be God’s instrument of mercy. God had not forsaken God’s people and this was good news indeed!

When all within is dark

The Bible readings for today are Zephaniah 3.1-2, 9-13; Psalm 34.1-6, 21-22; Matthew 21.28-32.

On Sunday night I learned of the deaths of two of my friends. Neither of them lived near enough for me to have seen them for some while. Both were members of churches I formerly pastored. One was a little older than me and had Alzheimer’s disease for quite a few years. The other was a lot older than me and was underestimated and overlooked in all kinds of ways throughout his life. They were two of the kindest people and truest followers of Jesus I have ever met. Though I couldn’t really have counted on seeing either of them much if ever again, their passing nevertheless makes me sad. I know they are ‘at home with the Lord’. Even so, their death somehow diminishes the world and my own life within it. (John Donne and all that). The world is a poorer place without them.

Well, that news and these verses about turning (back) to God got me to thinking about this beautiful prayer I came across some time ago and rediscovered on Saturday morning. The implied circumstances behind the prayer are different from my own but the references to darkness, to turning, and to the love of God make it irresistible:

When all within is dark,
and former friends misprise;
from them I turn to You,
and find love in Your eyes.
When all within is dark,
and I my soul despise;
from me I turn to You,
and find love in Your eyes.

When all Your face is dark,
and Your just angers rise;
from You I turn to You,
And find love in Your eyes.

Solomon Ibn Gabriol (c. 1021-58); translated by Israel Abrahams in Festival Studies (London: Macmillan, 1906) 100; altrd. and reprinted in Forms of Prayer (Movement for Reform Judaism, 2008), 18.

An Advent question

The Bible readings for today are Numbers 24.2-7, 15-17; Psalm 25.3-8; Matthew 21.23-27.

In Matthew 21.23-27, Jesus cleverly evades his interrogators’ question but the Evangelist’s purpose goes beyond presenting Jesus as a shrewd conversation partner. Jesus cuts to the heart of the problem with his opponents. They ask Jesus a question but only so they can catch him out. Seeming to be open-minded they are actually as closed as can be.  Jesus asks them a question that they cannot answer without revealing their rejection of John and of Jesus. Advent asks a similar question of us. For all our inquisitiveness, are we really open to what God is doing in Jesus Christ?

If you are interested in a few more ramblings of mine, I wrote today’s Advent reflection over at Hopefulimagination. Click on the link to check it out.

Mercy trumps judgement

The Bible readings for today are Isaiah 35.1–10; Psalm 146.4-10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11.

John began to doubt Jesus because he was not living up to his expectations of a messiah. Matthew leaves us in no doubt about his own perception of Jesus’ identity. He tells us that John sent to check up on Jesus ‘when he saw what the Messiah was doing’.

Jesus was teaching disciples and preaching good news and John was confused. He thought that Jesus would bring retribution on the people and here he was giving them another chance. John had preached as if there would be no tomorrow, but Jesus had the long-term in view. Perhaps John felt a bit like Jonah. Both had preached impending doom only to be confronted by the patience and kindness of God.

This does not allow us to dismiss John. His disturbing word will not be silenced. And yet, for some reason he hadn’t sufficiently counted on the mercy of God. Jesus reminded him that healing and helping were more a part of Messiah’s remit than judging and condemning. We are not told whether John got the message but if he was half the prophet Jesus thought he was, then surely he must have. And it is not that Jesus gives up on judgement. Isn’t it more that the self-giving love of God revealed in Jesus judges (and redeems) us like nothing else ever could?

In the footsteps of Jesus

The Bible readings for today are 2 Kings 2.9-12; Psalm 80.1-4, 18-19; Matthew 17.10-13.

The Bible contains quite a few succession narratives. These stories recount the details surrounding the handing of the baton to the next generation of prophets, priests or kings. Joshua succeeds Moses, Solomon succeeds David, Elisha succeeds Elijah, and so on. The succession of Elijah is a story with all kinds of open-ended possibilities. On the face of it he is simply succeeded by Elisha but the story of his translation to heaven keeps eternally open the possibility of a sequel. So it was that a return of Elijah as forerunner of the messiah became anticipated. In Matthew’s Gospel John the Baptist takes on the mantle of Elijah and fulfills this role. In a way then, Elijah is succeeded by John just as John is succeeded by Jesus. Jesus in turn hands on the baton to his followers, to the church. There is of course something troubling about all this. Matthew says that (the leaders of) the people failed to recognize John and persecuted him. The Son of Man too would suffer at their hands says Matthew. Is there not here an unspoken and troubling implication for those who follow Jesus?

As we remember in our prayers today all those who are suffering because of their faith in Jesus, we join with them and sing:

O let me see your footmarks,
and in them plant my own;
my hope to follow truly
is in your strength alone:
O guide me, call me, draw me,
uphold me to the end;
and then in heaven receive me,
my Saviour and my friend!

J. E. Bode (1816–74).

Sin and Springsteen

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 48.17-19; Psalm 1; Matthew 11.16-19.

I keep hearing from fellow Christians, and especially from ministers, that we really must get away from the concept of sin. Apparently, it is no longer relevant and no one wants to hear about it anymore. Imagine my surprise therefore when, sitting in front of the TV screen on Wednesday night, I hear none other than Bruce Springsteen waxing lyrical on the subject. Reflecting on the making of the classic 1978 album, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, Springsteen says:

A lot of the songs deal with my obsession with the idea of sin and what is it? What is it in a good life? Because it plays an important place in the good life also. How do you deal with it? You don’t get rid of it. How do you carry your sins? That’s what the people in ‘Racing in the Street’ are trying to do. How do you carry your sins?

The Bible, of course, has a lot to say about sin and today’s readings make their own contribution.

I was completely enthralled by the special edition of ‘The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town’ that aired on BBC1 on Wednesday evening. I don’t think it was just a sense of nostalgia for the Jersey Shore that made the documentary so resonant for me. We seem to be living in days that are increasingly reminiscent of the late 70s and early 80s; perhaps that is why Springsteen’s songs from that era came over to me with new force and vitality. Anyway, if you missed the documentary, you can still catch it on BBC iPlayer (or buy the full version on DVD). Springsteen talks about sin and compromise, and about growing up. He talks too about a sense of place and of honouring parents, of ‘apocalyptic grandeur’, and artistic instinct and intelligence. He does all this against the backdrop of original footage of Springsteen and the E Street Band striving to create a great work. All this gives it a strange kind of Advent appropriateness, or at least it did for me winding down after a busy day. Watch it if you can; I don’t think you will regret it.

Slow to anger and rich in steadfast love

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 41.13-20; Psalm 145.1, 8-13; Matthew 11.11-15.

Forgive me if I leave the Matthew text alone for the time being. I am drawn (again) to one of my favourite verses of the Bible – Psalm 145.8, ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’ We read the same thing yesterday in Psalm 103.8. These words (with only very minor variations) appear about eight times in the Bible and are alluded to in many other passages too. Using metaphorical language, they beautifully describe the character of God as revealed to Moses on the mountain and supremely manifested in the person of in Jesus.

It is often suggested to me that the God of the Old Testament is legalistic, vindictive and hateful. Well, if Psalm 103.8 and 145.8 (and Ex 34.6; Nu 14.18; Ps 86.15; Neh 9.17; Joel 2.13; Jonah 4.2) are anything to go by, nothing could be further from the truth!

Strength for the weary

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 40.25-31; Psalm 103.8-13; Matthew 11.28-30.

In a time of national catastrophe many of the people of Israel were ready to give up. God, it seemed, had forsaken them. Their enemies ruled over them and Jerusalem was in ruins. It seemed that nothing would ever be any different and the people of God may as well give up. Yet the word of the prophet breaks into the gloom. God is not bounded by the transient circumstances of human, national or societal life. God, who made heaven and earth, is the eternal God who outlasts the years. Human beings faint, fall and fade but God is the source of life and strength. Those who wait or trust in God will renew their strength; their enthusiasm will return and, given the power to endure, they will yet see better days.

Jesus makes a similar and audacious promise in relation to himself: ‘Come to me all who are weary . . and I will give you rest’! Again, rest and renewal come through waiting and trusting, but also through learning and through serving. There is a paradox here. True freedom is found by following Jesus and by serving God.

Today I am thinking about suffering friends. I can think of a few who are facing extreme circumstances. Yet as I pray for them, their faithfulness continues to be inspiration to me. They testify to the truth of the prophet’s words. They demonstrate that trusting in God through times of distress and difficulty really does make a great difference.

Loving God, we pray for suffering friends. Support and sustain them in their distress and give them grace and strength to endure and overcome. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish

The Bible readings for today are Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 96.1, 10-13; Matthew 18.12-14.

I cannot say that I had ever really noticed the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this parable of Jesus. Perhaps Luke’s version (15.3-7) is the more popular, beginning as it does that wonderful string of parables that culminates in that of the Prodigal Son. Anyway, Matthew tells and uses the parable differently than does Luke; and Matthew’s perspective deserves more attention than it seems to get.

In Luke, the parable concerns itself with lost sinners who repent; in Matthew, straying disciples are in view. At least that is what I think Matthew’s Jesus means when he speaks of ‘these little ones’. Of course, the expression might be applied to any who are vulnerable but Jesus has already narrowed his reference to ‘these little ones who believe in me(18.6). In fact, most of Matthew 18 deals with the way that the way that disciples of Jesus are supposed to treat each other. The parable (along with the sayings that introduce and conclude it) provides a theological rationale for mutual kindness and respect among Christ’s followers. It is a pity that the lection begins with verse 12 and not, as it should, with verse 10. (Perhaps the editors worried about what we would make of the angels of these little ones beholding the face of God in heaven.)

Verse 10 sets the scene with the words, ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones’, or as Donald A. Hagner translates it, ‘See that you do not treat one of these little ones with contempt’ (Hagner, Matthew 14-28 [Word Biblical Commentary 33b], 524). The rest of the chapter deals with relationships among the followers of Jesus, what to do when a fellow disciples sins against you, and how many times you should you forgive your ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Relationships are to be characterized by understanding, forbearance and forgiveness. For if Jesus is the one of whom the prophets foretold, he brings with him peace and reconciliation for all peoples. His followers are therefore called to embody peace; they are to forgive each other from the heart. There is something here about the inestimable worth of humans beings in the sight of God. Even those who stray away from Jesus and his teaching, those who struggle to keep the faith, remain the objects of God’s love and concern. God seeks them out and restores them lovingly to the fold.

The way Matthew uses this parable suggests to me that the church to which he was writing was struggling with what attitude to adopt to those who, perhaps under the threat of persecution, seemed to fall away. Matthew, employing the words of Jesus, enjoins the church to welcome back all who stray.

Jesus calls us to each other:
found in him are no divides.
Race and class and sex and language:
such are barriers he derides.
Jon the hands of friend and stranger;
join the hands of age and youth;
join the faithful and the doubter
in their common search for truth.
(Iona Community – ‘Jesus calls us here to meet him’,
Baptist Praise and Worship, 12)

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