What Would We Have Done? – A Midnight Meditation for Christmas Eve

Bible Readings: Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 2:8-17 and Matthew 2:1-12.

Lord of grace and truth,
we confess our unworthiness
to stand in your presence as your children.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


Mary

What would we have done, if we had heard that God was doing something new and unique deep within us?

Would we lay claim to our flesh, our biology, our reputation, our safety?

Or would we surrender ourselves saying “not my will, but yours be done”?

Joseph

What would we have done if we had listened to the gossip and found we were the butt of the joke? We’d been lied to, taken for a fool.

Would we clamour for justice, for the world to see the lies for what they were, for our name to be vindicated and our path clear to start again?

Or would we remember our place in history, the earthly link to a heavenly king? Would we trust that what was conceived in her was from God, as unlikely as that sounded? Would we care for these helpless ones as if they were our own flesh and blood?

The People of Bethlehem

What would we have done if we had been woken in the night by travellers filthy from the road? Would we have closed the shutters of our hearts to the pain and the desperation of those far from home?

Or would we have made room for the mess and the chaos of birth, going without to feed another mouth, risking the unknown but opening ourselves up to this holy mystery.

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The Virgin Mary accepted your call
to be the mother of Jesus.
Forgive our disobedience to your will.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


Hearing the Angels

What would he have done if God had broken into our world, calling us to attention and exposing our weakness with the light of His glory?

Would we have hidden away, desperate to keep our hearts hidden from the gaze of the one who sees and knows?

Or would we have listened to the words of welcome – “Don’t be afraid, this is good news” – and been the first to feel the joy of heaven as it rushed across the earth?

The Shepherds

What would we have done if we had to choose between guarding our assets and proving the words from heaven?

Would we have huddled more closely to the light of the fire, warding off the terrors of the night and preferring to ignore the words of invitation?

Or would we have set out into the unknown to see this thing which had happened, this thing which would amaze all they told and would turn the scum of the earth into the heralds of the kingdom of God.

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The shepherds left their flocks
to go to Bethlehem.
Forgive our self-interest and lack of vision.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


The Magi

What would we have done if the moment we had been waiting our whole lives for finally came?

Would we search for an explanation, a rationalisation an reason to stay put where we are the masters of our own destiny?

Would we be swayed by the trappings of power and the veiled threats, and betray this undefended child into the hands of violent men?

Or would we search for the one who calls out the stars by name and lay down whatever we can in his service?

Herod

What would we have done, if we had heard that the promised king had been born and his star had risen in the sky?

Would we take counsel together and discuss this threat to national security, this pretender to the throne who had been born in Bethlehem.

Would we allow our own pride and desires to be unseated before this king who has no equal and who wants our hearts for his own?

Would our hearts be filled with gladness that God had heard the cries of his people, that the silence had been filled with a baby’s cry?

Unto us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given

The wise men followed the star
to find Jesus the King.
Forgive our reluctance to seek you.
We have sinned:
forgive and heal us.


You and I

What will we do as we come to his table? As we hear again of the night he was abandoned, in the garden and on the tree? As he broke himself for us and poured himself out that we may be filled.

Will we stay into the darkness, or will we come into the light, daring to believe that this was for us.

Will we receive the gift of God?

Will we receive Him?

Unto Us a Child is Born
Unto us a Son is Given
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Unto Us a Son is Born
Unto us a Child is Given

The Peace of the Lord be always with you
And also with you.


Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, material from which is included in this post, is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000.

The Church needs to stop telling husbands to lead, and start teaching them how to love.

It’s been 13 years since our wedding day, a day when Tanya promised to ‘love, honour and submit’ to me, and where we started our Bible reading with Ephesians 5:21 to remind us that submission in marriage is a two-way street.

But to this day, the blank line in many translations between verses 21 and 22 of Ephesians chapter 5 seems to remain an insurmountable barrier in much of the teaching on submission in marriage. Why do we so often start with verse 22 “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” and not with verse 21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”?

This week a number of bloggers are posting syncro-blogs exploring the Bible Texts which mention submission in marriage and my contribution to the debate is to ask just what problem these New Testament ‘household codes’ are trying to address. The answer to this question makes a big difference to our application of these passages and what I want to suggest is that these instructions are intended to help Christian families live in the freedom which Christ alone offers to men and women. In other words, they are part of the overthrow of the effects of the fall.

There is a powerful and popular school of thought that teaches that female submission and male leadership are the antidote to the sins of the fall. in this schema, Adam’s sin was his failure to take the lead (“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife…” 3:17) and Eve’s sin was her disastrous delusion that she could make decisions on behalf of her husband (“she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” 3:6). The application is worked out in the common-place teaching that husbands should exercise leadership more explicitly in their homes, and wives should actively submit, whether or not their husbands temper their leading with love.

And this is really important because as a result of this teaching, men, even Christian men, who have a tendency to abuse women are given theological justification for doing so. Even more horrifically, I keep hearing accounts of how some churches are complicit in this abuse as they tell women who complain to go back and do a better job of submitting.

When I hear about these stories of abuse, what I can’t get to grips with is how we got to this teaching in the first place. The passages in the New Testament which talk about wives or slaves submitting never use leadership as the male counterpoint, they always talk about love. In any case, leadership in the New Testament is always modelled on the pattern of Christ, who led by his total self-giving sacrificial love.

It is much more consistent with the overall witness of the Bible to see these codes as written to deal with the effects of the fall. In them God himself demonstrates how the curses of the fall will be undone.

It is Jesus who is the second Adam, succeeding where humanity has failed. These codes are not written to show us how to correct the sins of Adam and Eve, but to teach us how to live, throwing off the curses which their sin laid upon us.  

Much of the discussion about women submitting will draw on the context of the patriarchal nature of Jewish and Greco-Roman society. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that patriarchy too is a result of God’s curse and not part of God’s design. In Genesis 3:16 God says to Eve:

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

Genesis 3:16 (NRSV)

Until this point the relationship between Husband and Wife had been one of mutuality and co-operation – that was the intention of the one-flesh union described in Genesis 2:24. But as a result of the fall man would rule over woman, which is what we have seen perpetuated in patriarchal society in every generation since.

But Peter and Paul in the New Testament are writing to Christians about how to live Christ-empowered lives which challenge the dominion of sin and challenge the effects of the fall. And I want to suggest that these household codes have nothing to do with maintaining patriachal society, instead, we see submission and love as the counterpoint to the sinful tendencies pronounced over women and men at the fall. This will now be their default mode of operation.

“yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

To see the full semantic range of the words in bold, we can look ahead one chapter in the Genesis narrative to see how the author deliberately puts the Hebrew words together again. God is speaking following the exposure of the sin of Adam and Eve’s firstborn son Cain, who has begun to plot to kill his own brother.

“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Genesis 4:7 (NRSV)

Here the words present a power struggle, sin desires to have you under its control, but you must exert your rule over it. And this is the same struggle which is seen in ‘the battle of the sexes’. The wife desires to control her husband, but he will use his superior strength and power to dominate.

All the Bible’s teaching about men and women is built on the foundation of Genesis chapters one to three. So when we come to its teaching about submission and love in marriage, it makes sense to see submission as the antidote to the desire to control, and love as the antidote to domination.

Submission then, cannot be the blind acceptance of a Husband’s decisions, however benign. Neither can love be construed to be taking control, however well intentioned.

We (and I say ‘we’ as a church pastor and Bible teacher’) do both husbands and wives a serious disservice when we tell husbands to ‘man up’ and lead their families. What men need is to be taught how to overcome their fall-driven impulses to use their strength position and power to  dominate. They need to be taught to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25) and nowhere is that love expounded more clearly than in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

The love of Christ for His church is a love which gives up all superiority (however much it was deserved) and takes the position of a slave. No wonder we men find it hard to love – we need Christ to teach us how to love like this, and the church to celebrate that love, not tell us to put down our cross and exert our authority.

Ruth in Haiku

New to Twitter Login ScreenIn a recent Bible Study we was challenged to try and summarise the ‘story so far’ in each of the chapters of the book of Ruth. I cheekily suggested we should summarise each chapter in Twitter-friendly haiku poems – and promptly found myself challenged to do just that. The results are below, in a slightly more permanent form than their original Twitter form (with line breaks, typos corrected and one refinement).

Ruth Chapter 1

Starving House of Bread
Ruth clings as Naomi pleads
Don’t call me Pleasant

Ruth Chapter 2

At barley harvest
Ruth’s diligent gleaning prompts
Kindness from Boaz

Ruth Chapter 3

Boaz uncovered
Ruth finds rest and Godly love
Under his mantle

Ruth Chapter 4

God in the detail
Ruth weds Kinsman-Redeemer
Mara full again

A Belated Post for Purim – Finding God in Esther

Last Sunday two global pageants took place. The Academy Awards Ceremony captured the eyes of the world on Sunday evening, but as the Oscars were starting, the Jewish festival of Purim was ending. Between sunset on Saturday and nightfall on Sunday, Purim was celebrated with carnivals and processions, fancy dress and feasting, as Jewish people remember the Old Testament story of Queen Esther and the deliverance of God’s people.

This is a belated post for Purim, not just because the festival has passed, but also because it’s a post I said would be ‘my next post’ way back in December 2011. You can read the first two parts of my discussion about Esther here and here. Since I wrote this a long time ago, there is some repetition in what I’ve written below, and I’m still trying to home in on the answer to the question I posed back then “Do we need to put God back into Esther?”

In my former posts I was trying to clear the ground of unhelpful approaches to Esther and, having done that, we now need to look at the story. It’s in this colourful narrative that we begin to see that God was right there all the time.

We might have seen it as a vegi-tale, where Esther is an aubergine or something, but I imagine that a retelling for children left out some of the more sordid details of this book. And there are some fairly questionable things going on here.

We start in chapter one by being introduced to King Xerxes I, who is also know as Ahasuerus. This places the story between 485 and 465 BC, so some years after the exile, and in keeping with what we know about the geo-political situation of the time, Xerxes rules over the mighty Persian empire, 127 provinces stretching from India in the east to Libya and Greece in the West.

So at this time there had been a remnant return to Jerusalem, but Jewish people lived throughout the empire, some of them even in the citadel of Suza, which is where the action in Esther takes place.

So how do you treat the most powerful man in the world? Well, there is an expectation of obedience, not just from his armies, or his government, but also from his household. So one day during a lavish banquet King Xerxes and the visiting dignitaries and the nobles are beginning to behave in some fairly unpleasant laddish behaviour. After a few drinks too many, the men begin to boast about their sexual conquests and the king begins to boast about his queen. After all, the purpose of the banquet was the display the might and prowess of the empire, and what better way of doing so than to parade the king’s greatest trophy to the world.

Now this was well before the days of political correctness, and so the king summons his attendants to go and get queen Vashti. We read in chapter one verse 11: that she was to be brought “wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.”

Now chaps might expect the same response if we tried to get away with this sort of thing. Vashti is often dismissed as a small bit-player in the Esther narrative but, like many of the more interesting women in the Old Testament, Vashti is something of a proto-feminist. As Queen, the eyes of the empire will be on her and her actions will be noticed and copied by the women of the realm, and Vashti won’t come and be treated as a sex-object, something to be ogled at and fantasised about. So the King has something of a problem – here is someone in the very heart of his household who will not obey him.

The King’s advisors say to him, if you let her get away with this, then people the notice and the same problem will spread. Wives will say to their husbands “If even the wife of Xerxes does not obey him, why should we obey you?” So Xerxes makes an example of Vashti and kicks her out. This leave a vacancy, not in the kings bed, it seems, there are still plenty of young women in the harem for that purpose, but there is no queen, and so the king decides to do what any self respecting monarch would do, he decided to choose his next queen by holding a beauty pageant.

So it’s a case that whoever is the most beautiful wins. Or at least that’s the vegi-tales version. The real criteria seems to be whoever most satisfies the king sexually would be the winner. This is not just a beauty pageant, this is about how good you are in bed.

And just in case we are a bit squeamish about admitting what was actually involved, what happened at this point is that the women went from one part of the harem, where the women were virgins, into the king’s bedroom and then on to another section of the palace where the women were wives or concubines. Verses 13 and 14 of chapter 2 spell it out for us”

“And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name.”

And presumably if you were called, you learnt the lesson of Vashti, and you came.

Now Esther is the heroine, she has received a little help, and undergone months of beauty treatments, and at the end of the day she is brought to the king.

And Esther pleases the king and she is made queen, and the citadel celebrates by having another lavish banquet in her honour, decreeing a public holiday and showing the provinces with gifts from the royal treasury.

While all this is going on, the camera shifts. We are still in the citadel of Susa, but now Mordecai is the focus. Mordecai is a Jew, and the Uncle of Esther, and we read that he has raised Esther like a daughter. Now Mordecai is a fairly shrewd operator, and he keeps a low profile and we realise that it was on his instructions that Esther has kept quiet about the fact that she is a Jew.

One thing, however, brings Mordecai to the attention of the king – from where he sits at the kings gate, he is able to hear a lot of gossip, and one day he stumbles upon a plot among the royal officials to assassinate the king himself. Mordecai reports this, the culprits are captured and executed and Mordecai’s name is written down in the annals as someone worth honouring. This is a little like having your name on the Queen’s new year’s honours list, it’s symbolic rather than of any material value.

Chapter three introduces us to another character, Haman the Agagite. Haman is a senior official in the government of Xerxes and, like the king, he is a man who expects to be obeyed. He expects people to recognise his importance and to do as he says.

Now Haman thinks that a good way to show respect is by bowing down, and so he issues an order that whenever he rides past, everyone must bow down and worship him.

This is a man with delusions of grandeur on the scale of a Kim Jong-Il or a Saddam Hussein, and if you refused to play along, you would find yourself in real trouble.

And just in case we think that Haman is an historical anomaly, take a look at the luxury motorcade which carries Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe around his poverty stricken country. Since 2002, motorist have been required by law to pull off the road of they see the president’s entourage coming. It’s also an offence to gesticulate at the vehicles, and pedestrians who don’t get out of the way run the risk of being mown down or shot as terrorists.

But one person in Susa won’t obey the order. Mordecai won’t bow down and so Haman is enraged. Every time he enters the king’s gate, there is this man who will not show reverence. One thorn in his flesh, reminding him that he is not as powerful as he would like to be. Haman can command men’s actions, but he cannot command their will.

We don’t know if Mordecai is simply standing while those around him bow. We don’t know if he turns his back or if he makes rude hand gestures as Haman rides past, but his defiance causes Haman to hate this man and to hate his people. He might be saying to himself, “this is typical of this weak king and his tolerance of these people. These Jews are a threat and a danger”, and so he plans to get revenge on the Jews, and he arranges for the king to sign a death warrant for this people.

So the day is set, the command is signed, sealed and delivered, and we’ll remember from Daniel that the laws of the Meads and the Persians cannot be repealed. Once they are written then must be carried out.

So the Jews are sentenced to death, at the hands of Haman, with the authority of the king.

Now this leaves Mordecai with a serious problem, and unbeknown to the king, it also leaves Esther with a problem. And so Mordecai begin to fast and pray. He tears his clothes, he sits in sackcloth and ashes and he talks to queen Esther.

Mordecai says to Esther, you have the ear of the king. You are his queen and with him when no-one else is, can’t you whisper something in his ear during your pillow talk and do something to stop this. Esther’s reply is to remind her uncle what happened to queen Vashti. Chapter 4 verse 11, Esther says:

“All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold sceptre to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.”

But Mordecai has faith that there is more going on than meets the eye. And so he replies with this well known phrase, which is at the heart of the book and at the centre of our understanding of Esther. Chapter 4 Verse 13:

“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?”

And so reflecting on this Esther realised that she has no choice. This is not just about doing the right thing, but about survival and so she resolves to do something very risky.

Esther puts on her best clothes, and goes to the palace, and stands before the king. And, he is pleased to see her – which is good news and Esther and great news for the Jews.

But it is not enough for her to just go in and argue about politics, the law cannot be repealed, and so instead Esther begins to put in motion a plan to save the Jews.

Esther asks the King to come to a private banquet, and to bring Haman with her. Which makes Haman think even more of himself. He thinks, what a privilege to be invited to dinner at the royal table, what a recognition of my status, what an accolade!

But there is still someone who can dent Haman’s mood, and as he leave the palace, again he sees Mordecai in the gate, and this time he resolves to destroy him utterly, and so builds high gallows in his back garden, with the intention of stringing Mordecai up on them, publicly humiliating him as he has done by refusing to bow down.

What happens next is nothing short of divine intervention. Seemingly by co-incidence that night the King cannot sleep. And to help him nod off he begins to read through the annals until he comes to the part which records Mordecai’s involvement is uncovering the assassination plot. He also realises that he has done nothing to recognise this.

At that moment Haman comes into the court, with the death warrant ready for signing, but instead the king asks him “What should be done for the man the king delights to honour?” Haman cannot think of anyone who could possibly be more worthy of honour than himself, and so he thinks ‘what would I really like’ and so he says, verse 7 of chapter 6:

“For the man the king delights to honour, have them bring a royal robe the king has worn and a horse the king has ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head. Then let the robe and horse be entrusted to one of the king’s most noble princes. Let them robe the man the king delights to honour, and lead him on the horse through the city streets, proclaiming before him, ‘This is what is done for the man the king delights to honour!’”

“Go at once,” the king commanded Haman. “Get the robe and the horse and do just as you have suggested for Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Do not neglect anything you have recommended.”

Don’t you just love that bit? The tables are turned and the hero is exalted. This man who has humiliated Haman, will now humiliate him once again, and Haman is no fool, he goes out and obeys the king. We might see the forces smile on his face, but we know than inside his heart is seething with impotent rage at his powerlessness to destroy this man who keeps on defying him.

After this Haman attends the Banquet arranged by Esther. And at this feast, as is often the way, the drama is paced out. So on the first night they have a great time, they have the best food and the best wine and Esther asks if they can do it all again tomorrow.

The next night the scene is the same, but during the second feast, Esther begins to reveal her hand. At the start of chapter seven, the king again asks Esther what she wants and she says this:

“If I have found favour with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.’”
King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
Esther said, “The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman.”

Brilliant! Esther is a Jew, and Haman has signed her death warrant with the King’s own signet ring, and here he is cowering at the dinner table, fully aware of what is about to happen.

Well, this where the story turns from Drama to Farce, at the king storms out Haman falls down before Esther and begin to plead for his life. At this point the king returns and sees Haman with his hands all over the queen and thinks “if this wasn’t bad enough, now Haman is trying to molest the queen as well, and so he has a bag put over his head, and he is let out to the very gallows that Haman had built for Mordecai.

After that Ester and Mordecai put together this plan to save the Jews. As we said, these laws cannot be repealed, so a new law is passed, that gives the Jews permission to arm themselves and to kill anyone who is planning to kill them.

And so this threat of destruction to both sides means that a truce descends and the feared ethnic cleansing does not take place. There is some fighting, but those who are the enemies of the Jews are frustrated and themselves killed.

Finally, Haman’s family are hung on the gallows they had intended for the Jews, a very public demonstrations of the triumph of the Jews and the destruction of their enemies.

This is a story which records God’s deliverance. That’s why it is read at the festival of Purim as a reminder of the rescue of the Jews.

At the end of the story the tables are turned completely, The final verses of the canonical Esther say this:

Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews. Here is a godly prayerful man in a powerful position.

It’s a great story isn’t it? A riveting read with high drama, great irony, black humour, and captivating suspense. But we are still left with the question we started with.

Where is God is all of this?

  • We can infer that he is behind the scenes, but can we prove it?
  • Can a book which makes no reference to the divine names be rejected as lying outside the interest of Old Testament scholars?
  • Is this book in the wrong place, does it belong in the apocrypha as a ‘useful’ book, rather then in the Bible as scripture?

As we read and reflect on the story of Esther, we cannot help but see that it belongs in the canon. The book highlights the Jewish people, scattered and exiled throughout the immense territory of King Xerxes, which the opening verses record, covered North Africa, the Middle East and Southern Asia. The story recalls how the enemies of the Jewish people contrive against them but through a combination of providence, bravery and cunning, the eponymous heroine secures the safety of her people and the destruction of those who oppose them.

The book of Esther reads as if it is has been written by a secular chronicler, anxious to convey the details accurately and favourably (especially the splendour of the king and his kingdom), but unwilling to attribute the outcome to a mere tribal deity. The story has the hallmarks of a ‘romance’ or a ‘historical novella’ and has assonances with the Arabian folk tale ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ . In Esther the king is powerful but benevolent, the heroine beautiful and brave and the enemy is ruthless and devious. There is a rags-to-riches transformation and justice is seen to be done, but there is more here than pure entertainment.

There is also the air of a moral fable to the story. Proverbs 3:34 teaches that YHWH “mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble” (NIV) and the story reinforces such a reversal of fortunes as the proud Haman is humbled and the lowly Mordecai is exalted.

In fact those Jewish scholars who were so keen to add to the book of Esther make this point explicitly in the Apocryphal chapter 11 where we read of the Jews

“Then they cried out to God; and at their outcry, as though from a tiny spring, there came a great river, with abundant water; light came, and the sun rose, and the lowly were exalted and devoured those held in honour.” Esther 11:10-11 (DC)

But this story is much more than a cautionary tale. Although it is not explicit in the text, the story is one of YHWH’s covenant faithfulness to those who are faithful to Him. In a world of cultural and religious relativism, Esther and her uncle Mordecai refuse to abandon their absolute faith in the God of the covenant and instead of being destroyed, they are elevated to great power.

The main characters in Esther are portrayed as flawed but faithful. Esther finds favour from the king as a result of her performance in his bed (2:17), she became concubine to the uncircumcised pagan king and is defiled as she eats the food from his table. On the advice of her Uncle she also conceals here true identity (2:20) and presumably as a result is required to participate in the pagan worship of the Persian court.

Again, in their attempt to make the Jewish characters in the book into better role models the LXX attempts to explain away these defilements with prayers from Mordecai and Esther justifying their actions. But the Hebrew text, which is bereft of these excuses, presents more believable and more credible characters. These flawed characters are more true to the Hebrew scriptures taking their places alongside Samson, Gideon, David and other flawed people who are, nevertheless, used by YHWH.

It is not perfection, then, which is the defining characteristics of the Jewish characters. Rather it faithfulness and trust. Mordecai’s response to the news of Haman’s plot is to put on sackcloth and ashes (4:1), as is the response of the scattered Jewish communities throughout Persia (4:3). In the Jewish scriptures, wearing sackcloth and ashes was synonymous with calling out to YHWH in repentance or supplication and there is no reason to suggest that the action has any other meaning on this occasion. Even the King of Nineveh, on hearing Jonah’s warning exchanges his royal robes for these garments of repentance (Jonah 3:6) and exhorts his city to “cry mightily to God” (3:8).

As we look for signs of God’s activity in the book of Esther, we realise that it is Mordecai’s Jewish identity and faith in God’s promises to His people that lead to the planned holocaust. Verses 3 and 4 of chapter 3 tell us as much:

“Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, “Why do you disobey the king’s command?” Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behaviour would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.”

(Esther 3:3–4 NIV11)

‘He had told them that he was a Jew.’ These are the only words of explanation about Mordecai’s motivation for his refusal to bow down.

I an attempt to find some deeper connection, some commentators have suggested that it was his family history that prevented him from showing respect in this way. In 2:5 Mordecai’s family is traced back to Kish and in 3:1 Haman is identified as an Agagite. The connection that is drawn is that in 1 Sam. 15:20-33 Saul, the son of Kish fails to put to death all the Amalekites and especially their King Agag. Knowing who Haman was, how could Mordecai then bow before him?

This theory, although providing a speculative insight into the background of these two men, does not seem to advance an understanding of the theology of the book of Esther. In addition it contains a further problem in that in 2:6 the text records that “Kish had been carried away from Jerusalem among the captives carried away with King Jeconiah of Judah, whom King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had carried away.” This can hardly be the same Kish, appearing both in the deportation of 597 B.C. and the genealogy of King Saul some 400 years previously.

It is, maybe, more reasonable to give to Mordecai’s actions the force the texts suggest. Mordecai refused to bow or do obeisance to Haman, and although some commentators attribute this to arrogance and the Rabinic sources suggest that Haman had “a divine image embroidered on the chest of sleeve of his garment” , it is taken for granted by the author of the text that the reason why Mordecai will not bow is simply because he is Jewish. Surely, as the book hints and the LXX additions (13:14) make plain, this is because to bow to anything other than YHWH himself is to break the most important commandments, it is to deny the very thing that underpins the Jewish identity.

If his motivation is not to dishonour God, what of the explanation of his actions to those who were also at the King’s gate? When the King’s servants saw that Mordecai did not obey the king and bow before Haman the text records that they asked him why this was (3:3).
Mordecai’s response is not recorded (except that he would not listen to them, 3:4) and when he is reported to Haman it is “in order to see whether Mordecai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew” (3:4). The reader is left to imagine what these words of Mordecai might have been, but there are very clear parallels elsewhere in the genre of wisdom literature where these words of explanation are make explicit.

When Daniel’s companions are faced with the rage of King Nebuchadnezzar for their refusal to bow down and worship his image, their response is simple and displays the same trust the Mordecai has that relief will come for the faithful Jews. They reply to the king saying:

“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Daniel 3:16-18

In Esther, the King’s servants want to test Mordecai’s words, and the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego seem to fit the mouth of Mordecai perfectly. There is trust, challenge and the simple refusal to compromise the worship of YHWH with the relativism of Babylon and Persia.

Joseph is in a similar situation in Egypt when he is asked to interpret the King’s dream. Having learnt humility in the disgrace of Pharoah’s dungeon, now Joseph is not coy about who it is he worships. Joseph says “It is not I; God will give Pharaoh a favourable answer” (Genesis 43:16). These short confessions are charged with meaning and again point to the source of Jewish identity – God himself.

One final example, again in the broader category of wisdom literature is that of Jonah. Again, a Jew finds himself among pagans and out of their favour, but as Jonah explains who he is and who he worships, the response from the pagan sailors is not anger, or incredulity, but blind panic. Jonah tells them

“I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship [YHWH], the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

Jonah 1:9

Among these men there is a realisation that YHWH is more then a tribal deity, he is the cause of their calamity and must become the object of their worship (Jonah 1:16).

The proving of the words of Mordecai is synonymous, then, with testing the faithfulness of YHWH. Mordecai firmly believes that deliverance will come and he recognises that he and Queen Esther may be YHWH’s instruments in obtaining that deliverance, but that whether or not they act in accordance with His will, YHWH will deliver the Jews from their enemies and from the ethnic cleansing orchestrated by Haman. That one possible circumlocution which I mentioned earlier is the word ‘place’ in 4:14– “if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.”

As the text plays out the story becomes one of role reversal. The powerless Jews are elevated by the king while the powerful enemies of the Jews are overcome. Mordecai is promoted from sitting at the king’s gate to riding on the king’s horse while Haman and his sons are hanged from the very gallows upon which they had intended to humiliate Mordecai.

From a human point of view, the bravery and courage of Esther brought about the liberation of her people. But the book of Esther stands firmly within the canon of scripture as it tells the story of YHWH’s providence and his faithfulness to those who follow Him. Although these people are morally compromised, such is YHWH’s grace to them that they can become His agents for deliverance in a foreign court. This is the reason for celebration. This is why this scroll would be read both morning and evening at the festival of Purim to remind the Jews that as they participated in Purim, just a month before Passover, they were remembering YHWH’s deliverance, his grace and his covenantal faithfulness.

So Estehr book is not just a Jewish book, and Purim is not just a Jewish festival. The theology of Esther is the theology of Purim, faith in a foreign land. YHWH’s faithfulness to those who were faithful to Him.

So where is God in the book of Esther – He is there, we just need to look a little closer to see him at work.

Malachi: Desire, Refining & Purity

The Waiting Place…
                                …for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or a No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a sting of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

Dr Suess, Oh, the places you’ll go!

Advent is a season of waiting, but often our preconceptions and experiences of waiting are no help as we try to imagine how this can be anything but an in-between limbo time. Unlike all those apathetic people stuck in The Waiting Place, however, our waiting in Advent is not a vague hope that circumstances will change around us, but an active process of allowing God to prepare our hearts for what is coming. 

240 meters above the Colorado River, arching out from the side of the Grand Canyon is a tourist attraction called the Skywalk Platform. This horseshoe shaped walkway has a glass floor so that visitors can look directly down and see the vertical drop into the canyon below, so it’s not a visit for the faint-hearted.

Turing the blank page between the Old and New Testaments can feel a little like gazing down into a giant chasm with our hearts in our mouths. How can we reconcile the two halves? How can we bridge these 400 years as the prophetic voice is silent?

The second candle on the Advent wreath represents the Old Testament prophets, who help us to leap across the chasm as they make us expectant for the coming Messiah. In this post I’m going to be looking at just three verses from the prophet Malachi, whose words were written on the brink of that chasm of expectation, at the very close of the Old Testament.

During our Advent service at St. Pancras, I paused after each of the sections below and played the relevant bit of Handel’s Messiah. You might also like to use the questions to turn your waiting into an active process in response to the challenges of God’s word.

Many of the verses in Malachi’s four chapters are written to the religious leaders in Israel, the priests and the levites. They are guilty of dishonouring God as they lead the people in half-hearted worship and offer deformed and second-rate sacrifices. Malachi writes to expose their impurity and confront their wrong expectations of God.

Desire.

In the first of our three verses from chapter three, Malachi examines their desires.

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.

Malachi 3:1

On the face of it, this verse seems upbeat. They have been asking (in 2:17) for the God of justice to come and now the prophet tells them their request will be granted. But like our world today, the priests live in a consumer society and even their prayers are tainted by their greed rather than being a devotion which brings glory to God. Malachi says that they have wearied God with their constant calls for him to come and bring justice to the land when they are a big part of the problem.

Meditation: So what are we asking of God? What is it that we desire? Ask God to make your longing for Him to be deeper and more profound than our longing for stuff?

Refining.

The best place to be buried if  you were Jewish was on the Mount of Olives, to the east of Jerusalem, looking across the Kidron Valley at the temple gates. This was a good place to wait because this was the route which the glory of God took when it departed from Jerusalem in Ezekiel’s vision during the exile. And as He had gone, so He would return. 

In another, very familiar story, there is an often forgotten detail. It is how Jesus gets to the temple before he turns out the money-changers and traders. His route should come as no surprise to the alert reader of the prophets, however. He comes from the direction of Bethany, over the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley and into the East gate of Jerusalem and into the temple. Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple…

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.

Malachi 3:2

Some 400 years after Malachi’s rebuke to the priests and levites, it was business as usual in the temple. Lacklustre formulaic worship was being offered, while the people were short-changed and fleeced by greedy leaders. No wonder Jesus accuses them of turning the temple from a house of prayer to a den of thieves.

But what were they expecting? Malachi makes it clear that if they though God would be on their side, the priests were sadly mistaken. Their expectations of God were way off the mark, he was coming to give justice, but they would find themselves on the end of his judgement.

The two images used in this verse are images of pain. A refiner’s fire is a smelting furnace, hot enough to melt away the dross and leave only the pure metal. Similarly the launderer’s soap is not some Fairy nonbio-esque powder. The image is of ammonia or lye, which bleaches out stains. There’s a memorable (and disturbing) scene in the film Fight Club where the protagonist is given a chemical burn on his hand from pure lye, and these two images combine to show us how painful it can be when impurity is exposed.

Meditation: What impurities is God exposing in your life? What are you hiding from Him? Ask God to reveal to you the places in your heart where his refining is needed.

Purity.

Exercise gurus have popularised the expression ‘No Pain – No Gain’ to motivate us to regular workouts, but the principle is the same here. Although rather than motivate us to undergo suffering, the prophetic message is more positive – there is real gain to be had from this pain.

He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness.

Malachi 3:2

The problem Malachi was addressing was that this priestly tribe, the tribe of Levi, were making what they offered to God unacceptable by their sin. And God’s solution is the pain of refining. But this is not an arbitrary punishment for sin, God’s people are to undergo this suffering so that the impurities are melted away and the stains are bleached out. Then this priestly tribe will be able to ‘bring offerings in righteousness’ – their worship will be acceptable to God once again.

And the picture is similar for Christians. When God exposes our impurities we don’t just ask for forgiveness from them, we also pray that God will refine us to remove them altogether. We endure temporary pain for lasting gain.

Meditation: Do we want God to refine us from the impurities in our lives? Are we just at the stage where we ‘want to want’ that? Ask God to help you submit to his refining and to give you a vision of what it might be like to have a heart like silver and gold.  

Stepping out across the Chasm.

So is the gap between Old and New Testaments so scary? Not if we remember how the one ends and the other begins. Despite the silence of 400 years, the Old Testament closes with the promise of that “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me”.

And the New Testament does not begin with a baby in a manger. It begins with a priest, a son of levi, alone before the altar, receiving the news that he will have a son who will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17)

The chasm has been bridged, but we are still called to wait. While we do so we can make waiting an active process where we allow God to expose our impurity and confront our wrong expectations of Him.


During Advent I’m linking up with Tanya Marlow’s advent series on Thorns and Gold. Next week, John the Baptist.

Abraham: Promise, Hope and Groaning

During Advent I’ll be doing a few things differently. At church we’ll be having midweek Morning Prayer services looking at the four characters traditionally depicted by the four candles on an Advent Wreath. I’ll also be linking up with Tanya Marlow as part of her ‘Advent Thoughts’ series on Thorns and Gold. To top it all I’m reading Paula Gooder’s book ‘The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent’. Paula’s meditations explore the same characters, so any similarity to what I’m writing  is entirely intentional.

First Advent Sunday

The first candle on the Advent Wreath represents Abraham. We first meet Abraham in Genesis chapter 11, but it is at the start of chapter 12 that Abraham’s story really begins as God calls him to leave behind the ordinary and live an extraordinary life of faith. Even his name will change to reflect his new calling, from Abram (Exalted Father) to Abraham (Father of Many).

Throughout the portion of his life which is recorded in Genesis, the dominant verbs are about movement: go; he went; he took; he set out; he arrived; and that’s just in the first four verses of chapter 12. What is extraordinary about Abraham is that his willingness to go is based on nothing less than his faith that God would keep his promises. And what promises they were:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. ”

Genesis 12:2-3

Abraham’s faith in the promises of God is why he is a model of waiting for us. I’m going to look at three words from his life which give meaning to our waiting: Promise, Hope and Groaning.

Promise

 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

(Genesis 15:1–6)

Can you imagine an expensive but really inappropriate gift? Maybe a hand-made sofa for someone who is about to emigrate to Australia, or a hot air ballon ride fro someone who is afraid of heights. That’s how Abraham seems to be responding to God’s ongoing promises to him: ‘What’s the point of giving me anything, even the world, because I can’t keep it in my family – all my property will pass to a servant in my household”.

But God makes another game-changing promise to Abraham, not only will he have a son (and not an adopted son, but his own flesh and blood) but his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Abraham believed God’s promise and it was ‘credited to him as righteousness’.

Hope

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God,being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Romans 4:18–22

Oh! So that’s why Abraham’s faith is such a big deal. At 100 years old, Abraham was well past the age when anyone could reasonably expect to have children, so was his wife Sarah. Humanly speaking, Abraham’s faith was ‘against all hope’, but Abraham was the first person in the Bible to use reason to interpret the Word of God. Abraham reasons that God has the power to do what He has promised. He was fully persuaded that God could bring expectancy out of barrenness, and so Abraham trusts God.

This is where Abraham’s example informs our waiting. Christians are waiting for Jesus to return and as time passes, humanly speaking, this looks to be against all hope. “Yet Abraham did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” We are called to the same faith as we wait.

Groaning

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling,because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

2 Corinthians 5:1–5

Abraham was a nomad and his life was spent under canvas, but that wasn’t all he had to look forward to. Hebrews 11:10 tells us that Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God”. The Christian life is supposed to be marked by dissatisfaction. Not in the sense that we are not content with what God has given us, but that we are longing for something better, an eternal house build by heavenly hands, rather than the ‘tent’ of this mortal life. So our waiting is characterised by hope, but it is driven by longing, and punctuated by groaning. As we move towards the nativity narratives during Advent we have licence to use the richness of imagery or childbirth and elsewhere Paul talks about our longing for heaven as groaning as in labour. So this groaning is hopeful, labour should lead to new life and so our longing for heaven is a longing that death is swallowed up in life.

In the mean time, we are not left alone to trust all on our own. “God … has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come”.

So we wait, trusting the promise, reasoning that our hope is well founded and groaning as our longing for heaven eclipses our comfort and satisfaction with this world.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face
and the things of this world
will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace

Hel­en H. Lem­mel, 1922

 

Not for this reason, not in this way.

This week was always going to be a difficult one for the Church of England and I, for one, can’t see myself celebrating either of the possible outcomes from tomorrow’s debate and vote on the Women bishops legislation. I’ve felt for some time that I don’t really feel comfortable in either ‘camp’, but this morning’s open letter published in the Independent has confirmed my view that I am in a real minority.

So let me start by saying something that I hope won’t be a surprise, but which I haven’t made public: I’m theologically in favour of Women’s ordination and so I don’t see any barrier to women being consecrated as Bishops. In theory, I’d be voting in favour of a motion to allow women to become Bishops and thinking it was not before time. Although I don’t like the label, I guess this makes me an egalitarian. Now I realise that according to some of my conservative evangelical colleagues I ought to drop the ‘conservative’ label, but I still feel that this best describes the approach to serious engagement with the whole Bible and the conviction that I should obey what it teaches.

But as the debate currently stands, I can’t find myself supporting the motion that is before General Synod this week, and were I asked to, I couldn’t sign a letter which uses the arguments printed in today’s Independent. Although in agreement with the principle, I can’t say that the “end justifies the means” – I don’t want it for this reason, and I don’t want it in this way.

Not for this reason.

Much of the ‘yes’ debate can be reduced to the single point made in today’s letter:

First, because the Bible teaches that “in Christ there is no male or female”, but all people are equal before God. Just as the churches have repented of our historic antisemitism and endorsement of slavery, so we believe that we must now show clearly that we no longer believe women to be inferior to men.

This is the trump card which is used to defeat all other arguments. ‘God thinks we are equal, so the church needs to come in line with the will of God, and repent of not doing so sooner’.

But to take a single phrase out of context and to elevate it above the rest of the Bible’s teaching is a sloppy way to make a point, and the danger of using proof-texts in this way is that by trading verses in this way we can generate a lot of heat, by no real light.

Over 1000 Bible teachers signed the letter in the Independent, but the challenge to Anglican Bible teachers as we engage with this issue is to heed the warning of the 39 articles, which prohibit the church and it’s clergy from “so expound[ing] one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”. If we favour one text at the expense of another then we are not allowing ourselves to be led by scripture, we are sitting in judgement upon it as we say the bits we like are more valid than the bits we don’t. We need to look at more than one verse as we come to this debate.

So what does that passage in Galatians say, and what does it mean? And as we do so, let’s remember that this verse is written by the man who is often wrongly portrayed of as the arch-misogynist of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul.

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God  through faith,  for all of you who were baptized into Christ  have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,  nor is there male and female,  for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ,  then you are Abraham’s seed,  and heirs  according to the promise.” Galatians 3:26-29

The big debate in the letter to the Galatians is whether Jew and Gentile are going to be included and united together in on church. In this context, this verse is not about the abolition of all differences, but it is about the unity of all believers in Christ. The Galatian believers were in danger of going back to an Old Testament legalism, which does talk about differences between the way men and women are included in God’s people. Paul wants to refute that as strongly as he can and we writes “You foolish  Galatians!  Who has bewitched you? … Did you receive the Spirit  by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?”

So we cannot use this phrase as a proof-text to justify the rejection of all gender distinctions, or any other distinctions for that matter. It is not the trump card that destroys all other arguments or silences all other voices. We need to engage with the whole council of scripture.

As I said earlier, I want to take scripture seriously and I do come to conclusion that gender distinctions should not prevent women from playing a full part in the life and leadership of the church. I come to that conclusion from looking at the accounts of the creation of men and women in Genesis, from looking at Jesus inclusion and treatment of women (as mentioned as the second point in today’s indy letter), looking at Paul’s practice in appointing, training and deploying female leaders and from seeing the way household codes empowered women in the home and in society, in stark contrast to pagan instructions from the same period.

But in this backdrop Paul sees fit to limit the ministry of women in Ephesus and also, to  degree, in Corinth. There can be no question that Paul really does write “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;  she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12). This is not a man who thinks that all gender distinctions have been completely abolished.

I’ve taught elsewhere about how I this passage can be understood as the exception to the rule of equality, rather than the general principle which is excepted by Paul’s choice of women as leaders and teachers. But the point is that I come to an egalitarian viewpoint because I believe scripture consistently allows us to do so, rather than because one verse allows us to disregard all others.

Not in this way.

The other reason why I can’t support the measure as it stands and couldn’t have signed today’s letter is that it does not involve the “enormous compromise” which is claimed by the ‘yes’ lobby.

The church of England is governed by an incredibly complicated web of legislation, hierarchy and representative bodies, which allow for a wide diversity of theological opinion and practice. So it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that such a complicated institution could produce legislation which safeguards the integrity of all its members.

I recently read an e-mail from one of the General Synod members from my own diocese saying that we needed to trust the house of bishops to come up with a non-statutory code of practice to safeguard those who hold a complementarian position. The irony is that just a few months ago, the same people who are urging us to ‘trust the House of Bishops’ were up in arms that the Bishops had attempted to introduce a fairly minor change to the legislation which is before General Synod tomorrow.

My fear is that if (and when) this measure is passed, over time the provision for those who cannot accept it will be weakened and then removed altogether. It isn’t that I don’t trust our leaders, but as I look around the Anglican Communion, and especially in the direction of the Episcopal Church in America, what I see is the dilution of protections to the point where congregations are forced to leave their buildings and dioceses find themselves in conflict with their national church.

So I can’t see myself celebrating either outcome from tomorrow’s vote. Unless that vote is to introduce genuine compromise, which allows for women bishops, while protecting the integrity of all those who want to remain under the authority of scripture.

 

 

People are Rude

How do you deal with discouragement?

This week I was chatting to an artist friend who told me that, over the bank holiday weekend, he had hidden the gallery visitors’ book because people had been leaving disparaging comments about his work.

Now if you are an artist, one way to deal with negative comments is to tell yourself that people are rude philistines and that you are misunderstood. Another way is to do what the rest of us do and mentally balance the good stuff with the bad stuff and hope that the scales tip in favour of encouraging ourselves.

So for Martin, the artist in question, he could recall that someone recently compared some of his work to Tracey Emin. He could eavesdrop on a conversation I had where another friend made the link to Matisse. He could re-read my own recent blog post where I wax lyrical about one of his more evocative paintings. Or he could get out the sales ledger and remind himself that people actually do pay for his work, so he must be doing something right.

Incidentally, you might want to compare the three artists mentioned above for yourself. All three have produces series of blue nudes, some of which I’ve linked here. You might not be able to afford an Emin or a Matisse, but you could probably stretch to owning one an original Bush. (but be quick, you never know when fame might strike).

There are times when I get discouraged with my work, and I guess I’m not alone among my fellow church ministers in this respect. The temptation for us is to conduct a similar mental exercise to try and balance the good to outweigh the bad.

The trouble with doing this is that Jesus promises that there will always be something discouraging lurking around the corner. He reminds Christians that people will treat them the same way they treated him, and we shouldn’t expect exemption from the rule because “no servant is greater than his master”. So when we see how powerfully the Holy Spirit has worked through a sermon we preached on Sunday, there will often be an e-mail waiting on Monday morning questioning the theology of what we’ve said. When we see people coming to a living faith in Jesus, there will often be people drifting away from church. High-functioning leadership teams often seem to have people who find it easier to criticise than encourage. Even in our own lives, when we find ourselves feeling victorious about a personal victory, the old sins are still lurking at the door to trip us up.

To use a silly example of trying to balance encouragement and discouragement: last night we had a great prayer meeting asking for the Holy Spirit’s power to keep working to transform those who are being baptised and confirmed over the next few weeks, but I knew that afterwards I was going to have to empty the church recycling dustbin as local dog walkers have been using it as a in for their dog’s poo. The trouble with balancing the good with the bad, is that there is no guarantee we will come out encouraged. 

So is there another option? For the Christian there is, and in the passage I’m preaching this Sunday morning, the Apostle Paul spells out a more secure foundation for dealing with discouragement. He writes:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…”

Philippians 2:1

This is powerful stuff! Suddenly we see that our mood or our measure of success is not dependent on how well our ministry is going, how our congregation is growing, how our budget is balancing or what local people think about us – it is about being united with Jesus Christ.

And unlike growth, reception and people’s good opinion, being united with Jesus Christ is a permanent state, as is his love and his gift of the Holy Spirit.

I was reminded this week (by Twitter, no less) of a quote from Martin Luther:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

So although people are rude, and we are not as good as we like others to think we are, Jesus is constant and we are loved.

How much does it cost to buy-off God?

Today Christians across the country can breath a sigh of relief as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced his plans to allow a small North Devon town council to continue its 400 year old tradition of saying prayers at the start of council meetings.

Following last week’s announcement that the National Secular Society (NSS) had won a ruling that local councils could not lawfully include prayers as part of their formal business, Eric Pickles is quoted to have said:

“While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established church governed by the Queen.

“Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities – be it parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.”

Source: Guardian Online

The announcement that Mr Pickles will rush section 1 of the new ‘Localism Act’ into force ‘within a week’ will no doubt mute the celebrations of the National Secular Society, as the new act will restore the rights of local councils to say prayers as part of their proceedings if they choose to.

So why is it that Mr Pickles’ assertion that we are a ‘Christian Country’ sticking in my throat?

It isn’t that I don’t applaud the decision to give councils the right to decide for themselves if they include prayers. Neither is it that I don’t enjoy the schadenfreud of seeing the NSS defeated in their latest attempt to remove the trappings of faith from public life. No, what I find so distasteful is the comparison between the Government’s reaction to the NSS case and their relentless pursuit of the Welfare Reform Bill.

In the former case, the Government are keen to cite our Christian heritage as a reason to keep religious rituals in public life. In the latter case they seem hell-bent on taking away financial aid from those in out society who are most in need of it. Could it be that the price of a clear conscience is allowing a little bit of public religion?

As I think of those who think that God is somehow pleased when we remember to name-check him, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to the religious rulers of his time as he tells them that God cannot be bought-off with their religion:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices— mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law— justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.”

Jesus Christ – Matthew 23:23

The big problem with public religion, especially the sort which we are forced to take part in, is that it tends to inoculate us against the real thing. And Jesus calls those who would come after him (and call themselves Christian) to pursue justice, mercy and faithfulness, not just to say a few prayers before we get down to business. Being a ‘Christian country’ must surely mean that we pursue matters of justice as well as maintaining those traditions which remind us of our Christian heritage.

I’m currently reading Timothy Keller’s book ‘Generous Justice‘, in which he presents the compelling case that through His Word, God is calling Christians to pursue social justice in their churches, local communities, nations and worldwide. Keller explains that God’s command in the Mosaic law that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ (Deuteronomy 15:4) is much more than an empty aspiration:

“God’s concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass”

Timothy Keller – Generous Justice, p27

I get the feeling that this assertion that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ is going to be increasing important to my church community over the next few year. This isn’t just because people around us are getting poorer (although many in our fellowship and parish will be hit hard by the ongoing financial crisis and associated austerity measures), but because I sense we are being called to live out this reality in our church family and our local community.

What this is going to look like I don’t know, but I do know that if we get anywhere near it we won’t be able to be accused of preaching an empty and irrelevant religion. Real faith in real action is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

Carols by Candlelight

This year our Carols by Candelight service at St. Pancras is looking at the theme ‘Come and Worship the King’. The Bible readings all pick up this theme and are as follows:

  1. Isaiah’s prediction of a ‘wonderful counsellor’ etc.
  2. Mary’s song
  3. The angels and the shepherds
  4. The Wise Men and Herod
  5. Thomas’ confession ‘My Lord and my God’
  6. John’s vision of Jesus as he is now in Revelation 1
Usually at this sort of event I pick one of the passages and preach from it, but this year I’m thinking of using the following outline and picking up themes for different passages.
Jesus is worthy of our worship because:
  1.    His birth split time in two
  2.    His death changed the course of history
  3.    His future holds all our futures
Any comments – or should I just go back to explaining one of the passages?