Useless?

Why does Jesus need John the Baptist? There’s not much competition between them; Jesus outshines John from the moment his ministry gets into its swing. So why? Is it an accident, some sort of political gesture – or have we missed something?

The first thing that comes out of these readings (Luke 3:1-6, and Malachi 3:1-4) is that John fills the role of the forerunner, the “messenger preparing the way” foretold by Malachi (and indeed Isaiah 40:3). It is part of God’s plan that those who knew the writings of the prophets should have had several chances to recognise and understand what was happening, as John revived the long-dead tradition of prophecy, and Jesus came with his teaching.

That would mean John was needed to explain the significance of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament – and I am sure that is true. But, even so, isn’t that just a detail? Will Jesus not be heard, because he is Jesus, or because of the delightful message he gives?

Look again. Malachi 3:2 “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;” burning and caustic – that is not quite the gentle message we expect. But John has heard the same tone, for he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Luke 3:3

Why? John’s message is not an optional icing on the cake. The coming he speaks of is dangerous; there is the possibility of catastrophic failure. Those who would not repent were heading for disaster. The reality of judgement, even in the ministry of Jesus and not only at his second coming to judge the world and – us; is something we like to leave out, but should not. John’s ministry, even in its ferocious and forthright denunciations, was an act of merciful warning – of a real danger. A danger that is not past.

It would be nice to say that John gets through to those who need shouting at, and Jesus speaks with love. Nice, – but not true. Jesus is quite capable of speaking sharply and directly, of judgement and hell, as well as of God’s love and forgiveness. We may have trouble fitting them together, but he didn’t and we need to learn.

In the same way, John offered people a way of escape and salvation. Repentance and baptism were freely available, and clearly popular as well. John the Baptist is part of God’s plan, and in that sense Jesus needs him. He

  • makes clear the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus
  • shows us that new life doesn’t happen without leaving the old; repentance, commitment, faith are not “options” but the necessary route to heaven
  • he announces the demands of a holy God, who requires holiness in his people.

John the Baptist is a forceful antidote to a sentimentalised Christmas which does little more than excuse a conventional holiday. He won’t have that. The arrival of Jesus is the turning point of world history, an opportunity for every human – but one which could be missed, with eternal consequence.

Fair Warning

An aerial photograph gives us a different point of view – we see things we know in a new way, and the pattern as well. Today’s gospel (Luke 21:25-36 – today on Advent Sunday we start a new “year”, with Luke as our main gospel) may seem taken from a strange angle: Jesus is talking, and finishing comments started with the warning that the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed.

Jesus talks about three things in the future (though for Luke 1 or perhaps 2 are past):

  • Pentecost –  21:32 seems to be about that
  • The Destruction of Jerusalem – in AD 70, by the Romans (including the destruction of the temple)
  • Jesus return in glory at the end of time.

Each of these is important: Pentecost as the arrival of the Holy Spirit; the destruction of Jerusalem, because Jesus saw it coming and the Christians seem to have taken the hint and escaped.

But the idea of Jesus coming back is even more important. Why should we take notice? Because it will happen when many people don’t expect it. And it will come when sin has run, apparently unchecked, to mislead many people. Finally, sin meets God. The Lord comes back to take charge, and hear the account his people give.

It is possible to get lost in this. Some Christians will want you to consider whether descriptions like verse 25 do not correspond to global warming, or the space programme , or … (There have always been those convinced that the end was just around the corner – but we are not called to speculation.)

Some people will find the idea of judgement a suggestion of a religion of fear and repression – but no, it is good news, and no threat to those who will heed the warning. We are told in general what will happen – disorder, wickedness, desertion – so that we are not taken in, but remain faithful and alert. And that’s the point. Jesus warned his disciples what was coming so that they would be prepared.

Pentecost has come; the Roman Empire has long gone. We don’t know when Jesus will return – Tuesday afternoon, or a few more millenia. So don’t be surprised if the world is a mess; don’t be misled by those who say God doesn’t notice and his standards are out of date an unenforcable; be alert, be ready to welcome Jesus whenever he comes; and pray for wisdom in the meantime.

King !?

Pilate faces a poor man in court, and he just cannot understand (John 18:33-37). He has condemned many would-be revolutionaries, but Jesus doesn’t fit the type. He suspects those who have handed him over.

“Are you King of the Jews?” Well yes, he is, or rather King of Kings. What Pilate, the poor politician, cannot understand is what the gospel writers have been telling us all along. Jesus is Messiah, the promised King – but his Kingdom will come as he also takes the role of Suffering Servant.

Pilate would never understand the need for the cross. Jesus wins his Kingdom not by conquest and coercion, but by taking the place of guilty humanity, and dying for each of us. Only in that way can we be set free. Only by such extreme measures can we come to a Kingdom which is not only eternal and universal, but also:
a kingdom of life and truth, of grace and holiness,
a kingdom of righteousness and justice,
of love and peace.

If you find that hard to take, look again at all 4 gospels. Each, in a different style, makes Jesus death and resurrection the climax and centre. Each makes clear that there is no mistake, no accident. Jesus is King, and chooses the path to his throne.

It involves truth – not compromise, or uneasy coalition, but truth. Pilate’s next line is, “What is truth?” It sounds very post-modern. As if what is true for you might not be true for me – but we must live in Jesus’ Kingdom, and follow his standard of truth.

In addition to Pilate’s court, our other readings give us entry to two others. Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:9-14) sees not only the “Ancient One” take his heavenly throne, but with God the Father is “one like a human being” – in the older translations, one like a “Son of Man”. You may remember Jesus’ favourite term for himself, and see in God the Son the one given “dominion and glory and kingship” – an everlasting dominion, a Kingdom never to be destroyed. Prophecy from generations before Jesus birth.

Another vision of heaven comes from John the divine in Revelation 1:4-8. Here we see the heavenly Christ, “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, . . “ Marvellous words, not only for the persecuted believers of the first century.

He is the Lord of 3 tenses: “who is, and who was, and who is to come”. Pilate has not only lost his grip on truth, but he has forgotten / ignored the higher court which will judge him. A drama of incomprehension is played out in Jerusalem, but a higher court will give a different verdict.

And where does that leave us?
I hope we can take warning from Pilate’s failure to understand. Jesus Kingdom will never make sense to those who value only earthly power, possessions and status. But it is truly the most wonderful Kingdom ever. It brings
life and truth, grace and holiness,
righteousness and justice, love and peace.

There is no coercion, no bullying, but entry for all who want to belong, to learn the new way of discipleship. It costs nothing, it costs everything. As Jesus stands on the opposite side to Pilate, who do you side with?

Is that a new commitment, or does is show clearly in your past life?

Either way, will it be clear next year to those who know you best?

Change

“Look, Teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!” (from today’s reading Mark 13:1-8) Jesus disciples are impressed by the Jerusalem temple – it was both large and magnificent, but Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? . . every one of them will be thrown down.” It was a prophecy that would be fulfilled some 40 years after he spoke.

We don’t always enjoy change, and try to resist, forgetting that it is part – and a necessary part – of life. Whether you look at an individual person and the changes that come with time; or at their education, career and retirement, or at family structure – in each change is clear.

The disciples knew this of course, but if they thought religion might be a buttress against change, they were to learn differently. It is true that God does not change with the fashions, swapping his favourite virtues from generation to generation, or updating the 10 commandments for fear of seeming old-fashioned.

But the practice of Christian faith changes. Let me give you an example. Early Methodists lived at a time of gin shops – cheap oblivion to poor social conditions. Their response was teetotalism; Christians were not to drink, but to spend on their families, and help those in need. It is an advertisement for Christianity in Nepal today – drunkenness is a social problem, so again the Church is teetotal, and popular for it.

In Britain a century later, what had been a Christian virtue was sometimes an eccentricity. Now, I am happy to drink in moderation – but if I was a student? I’m less sure. I’m glad to see Street Pastors caring for the drunk.

It’s not that the Christian standard – avoiding drunkenness – changes, but its expression depends on social conditions. To say that God does not change is true and important. But to be faithful Christians, it is never enough to live in the same pattern as our ancestors in faith. Society changes; the key issues vary. The way we live has to express the love and purpose of God to the people around us.

A key issue is the question of security. The disciples may have seen the massive temple stones as an indication of permanence – which they were not. Jesus wants to give them, not a system or a ritual, but an education in spiritual reality which will make them secure, firmly based for the difficulties to come. He knows, and they must learn, that the only true foundation is God himself.

As we come to Christmas, I know someone will say to me, “I do love the traditional carols (or . . ) they’re what Christmas is about” – and I will struggle to know how to say. “No, it’s not carols, it’s God living with us that gives us the security to adapt our lives to serve him in every generation.”

Jesus knew there would be problems – false teachers, wars. More important, he knew that security was not in changelessness, but in God himself.

Remembrance – for past or future?

Today we celebrate the end of the First World War (Armistice Day coinciding with Remembrance Sunday for the 100th Anniversary of the end of that war), and remember soldiers who died – as well as those wounded (in body or mind), and civilians, refugees, and the many casualties of war.

We remember that the Great War was not the “War to end all wars”, that the Second World War followed, and the Korean, Vietnam, Falkland, Gulf and many other wars after that. We could get lost – and depressed – looking back.

Looking at today’s gospel (Mark 1:14-20), we remember how Jesus looked forward and announced something better: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Mk 1.15

It took the disciples a time to recognise Jesus as King / Messiah, and longer to realise that did not mean a revolution and the end of the Romans. Jesus is King. But his kingdom is good news for people of all races. And all people need to find the good news through repentance and belief.

We prefer to make excuses. I wasn’t involved – its them. But jealously, ambition, pride . . . these are ours, as well as the faults of others. We are (all) sinners who need to repent. The good news is for us – but knowing and admitting our part in failure is the way into God’s Kingdom, now and always.

Jesus would suffer, and his sympathy and understanding for the bereaved is clear (remember his mother Mary given to John’s care at the foot of the cross? John 19:25ff).  In the same way his care for the tormented and the suffering is clear from many healings, and the way they were carried out with care for the sufferer, rather than concern for publicity value.

So, let’s give thanks. That we live in freedom and peace – not forgetting many do not, even today. We live with the good news, the offer of entry to God’s Kingdom, where life is so much better. For us and for others, repent and believe.

A Great Commandment

The Great Commandment (which we read in Mark 12:28-34) can be analysed in several ways:

Some will point out that the two parts each quote the Old Testament – Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and ask with the scholars whether Jesus was the first teacher to bring them together in this way – it seems likely that it is.

Others will find it helpful to set this story in the sequence of questioning of Jesus after the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. There is the parable of the Vineyard, the hostile questions about taxes, and the resurrection, and then this more friendly scribe.

I want to ask a more fundamental question: What does it mean to do it? What would loving God and neighbour in this way look like in today’s world? There is a single-mindedness about it – something we find difficult in a diverted and distracted world. Interestingly Mark (not Matthew and Luke, who deal with the story in different ways – perhaps reflecting different occasions when Jesus used the summary?) quotes Deuteronomy 6:4 “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” The force of that may be clearer in CEV “’People of Israel, you have only one Lord and God.” Because there is one God, and not a choice, a wholehearted response is necessary. This is most important – more than personal inclination, comfort, even wealth and career.

What then? Clearly we are put in our place, and it is not at the centre of the universe! That might offend our selfishness, but it can also be a relief. We do not have to invent a meaning to life, a reason for our existence or anything else – someone else has done that. If for a time we lose our way, and find it hard to see pleasure, let alone purpose, this is a personal malaise, not the end of the world! God knows, God plans, God is, and our responsibility is to him first. There is a relief in letting him be in charge!

Strangely, the second thing about being put in our place is that we are not free to disparage ourselves – or indeed other people. If we are made and loved by God, we are not unwanted, useless, or rubbish. We do not have to justify our existence by exceptional achievement.

I do not matter because I am clever, successful, or professionally competent – but because God made me, loves me, and saves me. That is true today, and will be tomorrow if I am suddenly confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak or do anything much at all.

You are not free to think badly of yourself – that can be a temptation, to be recognised as such. You are to love the Lord your God – and his evaluation of you, and of others.

Loving your neighbour is a consequence of this. Yes, you may have the worst possible set of neighbours, but God still cares for them. You may be the means of bringing them to faith, and so to heaven (which is about as important as anything could be!)

You don’t love your neighbour when you can find a nice one. You don’t love your neighbour to be thought well of, to be praised for your charity. You don’t love your neighbour to convince yourself that you aren’t such a bad person really. You love your neighbour because you know that God, who is the most important person in all the Universe, loves you and loves them as well. You are told to love them; it may even have a part in God’s plans for you both. So you do it.

Scripture

At the beginning of John 5 Jesus heals a man who has been ill for 38 years – but his carrying away his mat on the Sabbath starts an argument. How can Jesus be right if he encourages the breaking of Sabbath law and tradition?  The reading for Bible Sunday started at John 5:30 and Jesus says in effect, “You don’t want to listen to what I say?, OK listen to the witnesses in my case, and there are 4”:

  1. verse 33  John the Baptist
  2. verse 36 Jesus’ actions – his healing and other miracles
  3. verse 37 God the Father (but he passes over this – God is not
    well enough known)
  4. verse 39 Scripture

The implication is clear enough. There is all the evidence needed to understand Jesus, and to understand is to follow and obey.

If we come into this Century, you will see that we get most of that
through the bible: Jesus’ words and actions, the account of John the
Baptist, and the Old Testament which Jesus referred his opponents to as scripture.

For us, scripture is enormously important. When I show children the church, I point out: the eagle lectern – to hold a Bible for reading, and the pulpit, for explaining what is read, and the altar, for the eucharist we are told in the Bible to do for Jesus.

But I don’t want anyone to make scripture into a magic charm – I
want you to use it! It’s not meant to be illustrated and elegantly
bound and left alone. It is meant to become part of our lives, in
dialogue with our ambitions, our habits and our lifestyle. What does that mean?

We read of John the Baptist, and those who spoke and acted against him – and hear today’s conflicting views of right/wrong, necessary/helpful/out of date. The answers we need are found in a continuing dialogue between what we do and scripture, so that God gets a say, as well as us.  We read of Jesus miracles, teaching, sacrifice. What does that do for a busy week in my life? There needs to be a dialogue, putting one alongside the other, letting both speak.

We read of scripture explaining Jesus’ role to Jews – and recognise far more as we have the New Testament as well as the Old Testament Jesus spoke of. But his complaint was that they didn’t apply it, and missed the point. It’s learning to apply scripture that is vital.

And we still have to deal with God the Father. Perhaps Jesus was referring to the resurrection (still in future). It’s not “put your faith in a book the academics can’t agree on”. Its “use the bible to question and direct your life, and let there be a two way discussion. Check the results with God in prayer – and with the experience of living them.

There are many ways of letting the Bible read you; there are audio recordings and books, software, e-mails, and many schemes. However you do it, give scripture a place in your routine, and start a dialogue between the Bible and daily reality. Each will bring the other to life – and the results can be everlasting!

Mistake – or . .

If I ask you to read Mark 10:35-45, I wonder how you react. It’s not that it’s complicated or difficult to translate; it is just very different to what we are used to in the media, and in what seems to be “ordinary” life. I hope, though, that you do find something to take away, ponder, and perhaps talk about.

I wonder if you see a warning. James and John were ambitious, perhaps even a bit ruthless about their aims. But they hadn’t really thought it through, and if Jesus had been less sympathetic it could have got them into all sorts of trouble. (2 crosses, or let the other disciples deal with their ambitions?). This shows up a real gap between Christian thinking and what passes for ordinary standards and expectations – a reminder of the gap, that we have to understand and get over.

But if there is a warning here, there is also an encouragement. These two are key disciples, and despite their blunders they are still included in Jesus circle of friends and students. Not only that, but their imperfections are not air-brushed out of the gospel account – quite the opposite. That’s got to be good news! If Jesus could choose and use people like that, there is hope for us, with all our imperfections.

Or perhaps what stays with you is that last verse, Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” It fits with the Old Testament lesson Isaiah 53:4-12, about the Suffering Servant who would redeem many. It fits with the Hebrews reading (Hebrews 5:1-10) about Jesus as a High Priest, bringing people to God and God to people. But it doesn’t easily fit with our culture of celebrity.

Have we really come to terms with Jesus choice of ministry – choosing to die, rather than to escape (as he could have done). Do we really want to follow and learn to imitate that sort of Lord?  We don’t need other people to remind us it is a strange choice. We easily forget that the eucharist (Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper, Mass, liturgy, breaking of bread – there are many names) we celebrate is a thanksgiving for the death and resurrection of the Son of God who died for us. Because it was necessary, because that sets us free, and allows the love of God to get to us, and through us to others.

I wonder how you react to a gospel reading like that.

Do you take warning, not to let ambition lead you astray?

Are you encouraged by the fact that Jesus uses real people, with their rough edges?

Do you find yourself wondering again about how differently God works, because we would never have planned Jesus ministry like that?

I don’t really mind, I just hope that you do react to it, and take it away, think and pray about it, and find ways of talking about it, too.

Wealth

“What must I do to receive eternal life?” It’s not a common question – I can’t remember being asked it. But that’s odd, for there is much interest in the spiritual, even in God. Obviously Christians are not expected to know the answers! You might want to think about whether that is good or bad.

Jesus is asked the question. (Mark 10:17-31). He refers to the ten commandments. (Exodus 20:1-17 though remember this is the Old Covenant). Commandments can be a problem for many now, who don’t want to be told, but to discover, who don’t want discipline and a consistent life. It is easier to collect religious objects (in your own time) or investigate the oddities of human behaviour (without relationship or commitment) than to live by a Covenant. But this young man at least has some understanding; he has done this, and wants more. Is there an advanced course, a way of proving himself?

Jesus sees the problem, and offers a solution. Sell everything and become a disciple! – but it is too much, and for 2 reasons.

  • The young man is rich; he can’t imagine life without his wealth, and the security, the comfort, the status it offers. Apparently even eternal life is not worth all that.
  • There’s more to it. He wanted to prove himself worthy – and that is not possible. Eternal life or salvation is God’s gift, not an earned reward. His wealth was a barrier getting in the way of his relationships.

When the young man has gone, Jesus warns his disciples about riches. He doesn’t say Christians must be poor, but he says that no-one who relies on wealth can receive salvation. For some of today’s “spiritual” people, that will be a barrier to following Jesus. Wanting their own way, a “designer spirituality”, they will not “follow”.

For some in today’s Churches, that will be a barrier to following Jesus. They want respectability, an endorsement of their social place and status. They would be offended to be told that Christians are sinners who recognise their need for help, and are united in failure, repentance, and salvation – which is a gift that cannot be earned.

Christianity is not flattering. It is not all about what a wonderful and unusually gifted person you are. It is about a God, who is truly awesome, who made us good and gifted – and will get us out of the mess we have made for ourselves.

Christianity is demanding. You can treat it like a hobby, and play with it when you have time or are in the mood. But that won’t do you much good. Christian faith is relationship based. It is not measured by emotion, but by committed action. You love God? Don’t tell me how much; let everybody see how you allow nothing to get in the way of that.

Nothing.

At all.

Divorce

Is divorce OK? It’s a question not often asked, especially when our society considers easing the law to allow “no blame” divorces. Yet there are few families not affected in one way or another by relationship failure. Interesting, then, that Jesus is asked the question in Mark 10:2-26.

Of course the question to Jesus is loaded, intending to lose him the sympathy of some of his audience.  He knows that the Old Testament Law (eg Deuteronomy 24) improved the position of a rejected wife by demanding that she be given written evidence of divorce.  He also knows that there were two views held among the scholars of his time.  One allowed divorce for serious matters (such as adultery), while the other allowed a man to divorce his wife for almost any excuse.

Jesus’ answer avoids the trick. He goes back to God’s intentions in Genesis, pointing out that the experience of divorce was not something intended for any couple (or their families and friends) (Genesis 2:24). The breakup of a man and woman bound by vows of lifelong faithfulness is serious.  Some will find that hard to hear, but we need to remember that faith is not improved by “leaving out” these, or any other words of scripture, which we find challenging or demanding.

That still leaves the question of what to do about divorce.  Christians may be concerned, but have no grounds for judgementalism or superiority.  Yes, we should give thanks for, and advertise the goodness of Christian marriage, even more than stable and loving partnerships.  It should be a blessing, not only to the couple, but to their children, their friends and wider society (and that includes single people, who matter and should not be forgotten). Christians also need to offer love and practical help for those whose family life has suffered, for whatever reason. Sometimes the protection of the law may safeguard those who need protection – just as the Old Testament required.

Christians fail, and their marriages are not excluded from failure.  Forgiveness is offered to all who repent. That is important, but does not cancel the seriousness of divorce, or neutralise the harm it can do.  If western society has many children brought up by single or step parents, do we not need to blame ourselves?