Tag Archives: danger

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.

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!

Still Learning

Last week’s gospel (Matthew 9:35-10:8) told of Jesus ministry of teaching and healing extended as all 12 of his disciples became apostles – the learners were “sent” to act in Jesus name. I reflected that this was not what we might have expected, but it nevertheless is what is expected of us.  This week the Old Testament lesson (from the “related” sequence) is Jeremiah 20:7-13, and might warn us that prophets and others faithful to God can have a hard time.

Reading Matthew 10:24-39, we learn more of what discipleship means, for the twelve and for us. 10:24 is important: “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master”.  Matthew quotes that apparently to warn the Christians of his church that they are likely to be abused and persecuted, as Jesus was. But he may also have been aware of the dangers to be faced as disciples got used to being Christians, and no longer found their mission such an adventure.

Historically, Anglicans have relied on Scripture, Tradition and Reason.  Scripture is of vital importance as God’s main way of communicating with us, (our services are full of the Bible in different forms). Tradition helps us to understand and apply it – you may not immediately remember why we don’t publicly stone people to death for certain offences described in the Old Testament, but tradition might help you pause long enough to remember that some parts of the Old are changed by the New Testament. Reason is something we believe God gave us, to be used alongside his other gifts.

But “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master”. We remain learners, and need to be aware of some of the ways of getting it wrong!

  • Scripture can be read out of context, or interpreted without setting it alongside the rest of the Bible. “There is no God” -the words are found in scripture, but the full quote of Psalm 14:1 reads “Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.””
  • Tradition shows us how Christians lived in the past, but (even assuming they got it right) does not always meet a new situation. When society changes, the same answer may be the wrong answer.
  • Reason is a great help – if we remember that we are always blind to our own weaknesses. I can think of a million excuses and reasons why my favourite sins are OK for me, – and all the excuses are rubbish.

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master”. As the twelve disciples went out that first time, there probably wasn’t much temptation to “improve” on Jesus teaching, or healing technique. As time went on, that temptation grew.

  • It grew because of the temptation to think of ourselves as clever, and not dependant on a Master
  • it grew, because we like to avoid facing up to being wrong
  • it grew, because life was easier for Christians if they didn’t admit to their faith in some difficult situations

For us, the temptation to re-write Christian faith in a version that suits us is enormous, and it’s wrong. – to be a disciple is to accept, learn from and follow the teaching of Jesus. I don’t mean that we can just sign up to some fundamentalist interpretation. We still have to do the work: interpreting scripture, reviewing the tradition, thinking hard. It’s just that we know that fallen humanity – everybody in this imperfect and bent world – doesn’t think quite straight. The bend is most visible when we are letting ourselves off the hook!

To be a twenty-first century disciple of Jesus is wonderful, most important – and involves some hard work.