Monthly Archives: January 2018

Authority – and conflict

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do, and when Jesus goes to Capernaum synagogue, it causes quite a stir. (Mark 1:21-28)
First, there’s his style. He doesn’t talk like the rabbis of the time, quoting other scholars’ comments in a learned way, claiming the authority of their study and their official position. He talks about God as if he knows directly, and tells stories of ordinary life to explain God’s love – as a shepherd searching for lost sheep, or a father finding a lost son.

The official reaction might have been to dismiss an ignorant con-man, if it had not been for the second thing. Jesus demonstrates his authority, even over unclean spirits. You can’t ignore someone who successfully heals someone who was probably known in the community. You can see the beginnings of a conflict – Jesus threatens the status quo.

[Incidentally, we sometimes wonder about “evil spirits” and mental illness. The advance of psychiatry is a great blessing, and many of those obsessed with spirits and possession need a good doctor. There is a difference in this story, in that the spirit recognises Jesus, and has knowledge beyond that of the man possessed. Despite the “Hollywood effect”, (sensationalising and sometimes trivialising,) there is a difference, but spotting it needs care and experience, and discernment by someone who is not the patient.]

The healing of the possessed man also points to a more serious conflict – Jesus is taking on, not just the vested interests of the human religious establishment, but also the evil powers enslaving humanity.

Back to talking about God. Moses had spoken to the people about God (Deuteronomy 18:15-20), and they found him less frightening than the fire on the holy mountain. Deuteronomy speaks of another prophet, to speak for God. It is a dangerous position. The words of the prophet must be listened to; but to speak as if God had given the message when he had not is to be liable to death.
Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. !

But of course, there is a good deal about danger in these readings. As we come to the end of Epiphany season, we realise not only that Jesus was shown to the world, and became known, in a number of ways:

  • Baptism,
  • calling disciples,
  • miracles,
  • teaching,
  • authority . .

but also that these things brought him into conflict. Part of the conflict was with people who wanted things to stay as they were – because they did well out of the status quo, or were afraid of what might happen, or couldn’t be bothered. Another, and perhaps better way of understanding that conflict was to see Jesus challenging evil – the darkness of fallen minds and bad customs, the evil of oppressive relationships, cruel poverty – in short, challenging the devil for supremacy on earth.

The violent metaphors for Christian life – battle, struggle, temptation, victory or defeat – are not the most popular now. As we look forward to Lent, we will find that Christian life cannot do without them, though they are not the whole story.

Speaking about God can be a dangerous thing to do. Even apart from the need to get it right, it brings us into the most fundamental conflict of all!

It’s a Sign

It could have been a disaster! Yet this story (John 2:1-11) has so much to say. Jesus took his disciples to a wedding – and we imagine he was a welcome guest. A bit of a celebrity, with a stock of stories to tell . . Perhaps we forget what a welcome guest He was.

Then disaster strikes – the wine runs out. We aren’t told why – whether it was thirsty disciples, bad planning, or delivery failure simply doesn’t matter. But who wants their wedding remembered for the catering disaster? There are all sorts of symbols here of things not working:

  • 6 jars of water for ritual washing (not 7, the perfect number)
  • Jesus’ mother is gently told not to manage his ministry – the old order is moving on to the new.
  • Even the water (of washing) is about to become the wine of celebration – but that is anticipating.

The wine runs out. Jesus takes charge – the provision he will make involves some hard work, without people understanding what is going on. But the servants fill the jars with water, and draw it out to take to the master of ceremonies. And, to his surprise, its the best!

God provides; we don’t always see how (as here), and can’t often predict what is planned. Yet He makes the best of the situation – that’s worth remembering. Here is a wedding gone wrong, but

  • Jesus, who refuses to do tricks to make himself look good, is shown to be kind (saving embarrassment) and affirms the importance of marriage by his presence and action.
  • Jesus works a creation miracle, showing his power over the world he created. Not just good with people, is he?
  • Jesus performs the first of 7 signs which John will carefully note in his gospel. Each reveals something important about Jesus, and so moves the disciples on in their understanding and commitment.

There are all sorts of sub-plots, in fact you can probably find some more for yourself:

  • Here is The Bridegroom (Old Testament picture for God) at a Wedding, to start a new family
  • Here is a human celebration running out of steam, but finding a greater celebration which works and keeps going..
  • Here is wine, which the Rabbis made a symbol of Torah – Old Testament law, replaced by better from Jesus

You could get lost in the detail, all the symbolism, but this story is about a God who provides (though we don’t always understand how or why), and who provides the best. It is a sign of what is still to come – in gospel and in life – but one meant to encourage disciples. Even us!

(There is another comment on John 2:1-11 last year: The (first) sign, January 2017).

Starting – and then

(There is a short dialogue sketch on this gospel, John 1:43-51, which you can find here.)

Do you find it hard to get started? In this Epiphany season we are talking about how Jesus got started, and others started with him. Clearly today we are talking about disciples. (John 1:43-51).  Already Andrew and Simon (John 1:35-42), and presumably James and John (Mark 1:16-20) have been called. Andrew at least was a disciple of John the Baptist, and had to face leaving the old master, good though he was, for a new. The others seem to have been fishermen, and faced issues of leaving their jobs and families, at least for a time. It can be difficult to get started on discipleship.

Then Jesus calls Phillip, and there is a quick response as he goes and finds Nathanael, and speaks of Jesus in glowing terms. The rest of the reading is about Nathanael (who is probably the same person as Bartholomew – which is a “surname”, used by the other gospel writers).

Nathanael is not impressed by someone from Nazareth. It is not that it was a  specially bad place, but [non-starter] – it never even gets a mention in the Old Testament! Prejudice if you like; it could stop him even starting. But Phillip is a quick learner, though. He doesn’t argue, just says “Come and see!”, – and Nathanael does.

John has been pointing out how Jesus knew people. Not in the “networking” sense, but in being able to weigh up their character and motives. As Nathanael comes, he comments, here is a man with no hidden agenda, no deceit! Nathanael is surprised; how is he known? Jesus says, “I saw you when you were under the fig tree before Philip called you”, and we don’t know why that is so important. Did Nathanael offer a prayer there, or was some question nagging his mind which Jesus has shown he knows about? At any rate, Jesus is right – Nathanael has no hesitation in changing his tune, and is loud in his acceptance of Jesus. (He has now gone beyond Phillip’s recommendation to his own evaluation).

That’s not all. Jesus doesn’t comment on the titles Nathanael has used, but continues the reference to Jacob – the sly, deceitful son of Isaac, who eventually became Israel, father of the nation (his story is told in Genesis, from chapter 25). Jacob had a vision, as he ran from the danger of death at home (Genesis 28:10-28). He saw a ladder to heaven, with angels going up and down. When he woke, he made a promise to God – the beginning of his change. Jesus says to Nathanael, do you believe because I told you that? You will see a way opened to heaven, not with a ladder, but with the Son of Man (the title he preferred to use for himself). Nathanael has started his discipleship with Jesus.

It is quite an opening. John tells us how Jesus ministry started, with ordinary people, but special happenings and promises. I think he is also telling us about how our discipleship, or the next stage of it, must start. We may have to leave behind some old things, even good ones, like the ministry of John the Baptist. You can’t do everything, and compared to the best, even the good is a distraction.

We may have to deal with prejudice. “I can’t learn anything from someone like that!”,  “I don’t want my religion to be like this”, or “my life to be like that . .” To be a disciple is to learn, and learning often means change.

These new disciples are just starting. (next week we come to John 2:11, “and his disciples believed in him”). But for now, the importance of Jesus, and of following him, is what they need.

Obedience

One of the issues not often talked about in Christian discussion is obedience. Who is Jesus, that I should obey!?

The story of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:4-11) gives us some answers. This is the start of the Epiphany season – looking at how Jesus was “shown” to the world: first the Wise Men, then Jesus’ baptism, later miracles, healings, calling disciples . . But let’s go back to obedience. A lot of people will do some religious things – they don’t mind a bit of church, moral teaching, things to think about. That’s all very well for a start, but it isn’t Christian commitment, because that’s about obeying Christ. (Yes, I know there are questions about how your orders are delivered, but the first issue is whether you are going to obey orders, or simply think about them).

What makes you – what would make you – pledge obedience to anyone? For me, it would have to be someone very special, and someone who didn’t have a big head, or a threatening manner, or an urge to manipulate me for his/her profit . .   So look at what Mark tells us about the start of Jesus ministry. Does he burst onto the scene and say “I’m the greatest” “You’ve must look at me, take notice of me, do what I tell you!” – No, he doesn’t. Does he come and say “Follow me or go to hell” “I’m the only one who can save you from eternal punishment” ? No again.

Mark tells us how it starts (missing out the childhood bits). It starts with a messenger of God, preaching in the desert places – and it isn’t Jesus. Only when John has set the scene does Jesus appear. And what happens then? Jesus joins the movement that has already been started. He is baptised, showing his acceptance of what John has been doing, recognising that God is behind it.

And that’s the point. Just as John wasn’t out to make a reputation, so Jesus is not concerned with his “career development” and his “rating in the polls”. He is about what God is doing, and he knows what it means to obey. That’s very important.

If you have any doubt, see how, after he is baptised, (and has the dove and the heavenly voice), he follows the direction of the holy Spirit and goes off into the desert to be tempted / tested. Nobody’s idea of a fun time, no holiday, but Jesus isn’t committed to having fun. He is committed to doing what God wants, even needs, doing. He obeys

What would it take to make you pledge obedience, not just interest, and being influenced, and wanting to hear more. But – obedience? Would it be a saviour who is able to join what someone else has started, who takes orders himself (even when it means struggle and difficulty). Would it be Jesus, who is able to command your life – time, money, relationships, job, spare time activity?  Perhaps you are already there, and just value the reminder. Perhaps you haven’t thought of it like that, and need to look again at this saviour who is being shown to the world. Do – he bears a close examination. But have no doubt that what he asks of you is nothing less than the committed, obedient service – that he himself gave.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is not about self-advertisement or super-stardom. It shows even Jesus being obedient, and so calling for our loyalty.