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?

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!

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)

One thing

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 29.17–24; Psalm 27; Matthew 9.27-31.

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple (Ps 27.4).

Advent provides an opportunity for us to remember what really matters. For so much of our lives we are taken up with the many tasks and aspects of daily living. So busy and rushed are we that we lose an overarching sense of purpose. I think it was Elton Trueblood who said, ‘Too many commitments amount virtually to none’. The palmist is single-minded, seeking just one thing: that he might live in the house of the Lord all the days of his life (cf. Ps 23.6). I don’t think he seeks always to be in the temple, never to leave its precincts. It may be that he wishes to visit the temple daily, but mostly he seeks the perpetual presence of God that is symbolised by the temple. Unless there is time and opportunity to inquire of God all else becomes empty and meaningless. What matters is God.

I am reminded of other passages. Jesus says of Mary, sitting at his feet, ‘There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ The apostle Paul was similarly single minded, ‘This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 3.13b-14).

During Advent we stop and ask ourselves what is really important to us. I wonder, is it God or something else?

Peace that disturbs

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 26.1–6; Psalm 118.18-27a; Matthew 7.21, 24-27.

The coming of the Lord is not all sweetness and light. For good news to the poor is bad news to the rich. And if the coming of Jesus will set right what is wrong, it will spell trouble for those who side with the wrong. The righteous will sing ‘this is the day the Lord had made’ but the unrighteous may not feel like singing at all. And who is to say that we will be found to be on the right side?

One thing is for sure: we are never more in danger than when we think we are OK. For not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom, and the lofty city is brought down. But those who put their trust in God, who hear the message of Jesus and act on it, can be quietly confident, not in themselves but in God. The Advent season prompts us to ask whose side we are on, what values we are living by, and what really matters to us. Advent is about waiting for the God who both comforts and challenges us.

All my hope on God is founded;
He doth still my trust renew,
Me through change and chance He guideth,
Only good and only true.
God unknown, He alone
Calls my heart to be His own.

Joachim Neander (1650 – 1680)

Lord of mountain and valley

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 25.6–10a; Psalm 23; Matthew 15.29-37.

It is difficult to know whether, in presenting the healing and feeding miracles of Jesus, Matthew had texts like Isaiah 25 in mind but I think it’s a good bet. Matthew’s Jesus ascends the mountain and great crowds gather before him. In keeping with Isaiah 25, Jesus heals their sick and, in effect, dries their tears, rolling back the forces of death. He sets them a sumptuous feast and the people praise ‘the God of Israel’. The words from Isaiah are not used but we can imagine that it was said on that day, ‘Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.’ (Isaiah 25.9)

If we see in the ministry of Jesus a fulfilment of the promises of old, we also await a further, complete fulfilment yet to be revealed. We wait, with John the writer of the book of Revelation, for the day when God ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ (Rev 21.4). In the meantime, we can take the psalmist’s words on our lips, ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’

Gracious God, please be with those of your children who today walk in the valley of the shadow of death; let them know your presence and in it find strength and consolation. Amen

many from east and west

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 4.2–6; Psalm 122; Matt 8.5-11.

Yesterday’s reading from Isaiah 2.1-5 saw the nations streaming to Jerusalem to worship God. Matthew sees this occurring in the ministry of Jesus. For now, in Matthew, it is only a hint but the centurion displays a level of faith unseen among the traditional people of God. Jesus points to the centurion as one among the many who will come from east and west to eat with Israel’s ancestors in the kingdom of God. I don’t know about you, but I am not entirely confident in the strength of my own faith. I am confident, however, in the generosity of God made known in Jesus. And if God can be generous toward me, there is hope for anybody! When I read these verses, I marvel at the faith of the centurion but, much more, I rejoice in the generosity of God. I feel challenged too to be generous in all my dealings with others.

First Sunday of Advent 2010

Today’s Bible readings are Isaiah 2.1–5; Psalm 122; Romans 13.11–14; Matt 24:36-44.

During Advent, Christians try to put themselves in the shoes (well, sandals) of those who, thousands of years ago, waited and longed for the coming of a Messiah. In a way they look forward to Christmas like those awaiting the Messiah. Today’s Gospel reading reminds them that they are not really waiting for Christmas but for God. For what they really wait for is the return of Jesus, who in his life, death and resurrection made God known and, in his return, will set right all that is wrong with the world and establish the reign of God in all its fullness. They live between the first advent and the second; between the birth and the return of Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God.

When read in this light, the oracle of Isaiah 2 and the song of Psalm 122 take on new significance. While we continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, we await the complete fulfilment of our prayers in ‘the new Jerusalem’ that comes down ‘out of heaven from God’ (Rev 21.2). In the meantime, we see an intimation of the peace and justice yet to come in the community life of the people of God. We work for peace in our communities and in the world as we bear witness to the peace of God made known and yet to be made known in Jesus Christ. Or at least we will do if we allow the message of Advent to have greater sway in our lives.

Psalm 122, however it is interpreted, is a favourite of mine. Set to music famously in Parry’s magnificent ‘I was glad’, it provides the text for a Jewish song I am particularly fond of:

Lemaan achai vereai,
lemaan achai vereai
Adabra na, adabra na,
shalom bach.
Lemaan bayt Hashem Elohaynu
avaksha tov lach
Lemaan bayt Hashem Elohaynu
avaksha tov lach

For the sake of my relatives and friends
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will now say, I will now say,
‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

See / hear it performed here.

%d bloggers like this: