Tag Archives: faith

What if?

There is a story of a Nativity Play where Joseph was naughty, and was demoted to play the Innkeeper. Apparently reformed, his two words “No room” were perfect in every rehearsal, until the performance. The substitute Joseph knocked wearily on the Inn door and asked for shelter, and the Innkeeper beamed at him and said, “Of course, come right in”!

As we read Mary’s story – this week her visit to cousin Elizabeth, and the mutual recognition of the two pregnant women (Luke 1:39-45 or 1:39-55), you might wonder if it could have worked out differently. What if Mary had refused to be part of God’s plan? What if Joseph had divorced her? There are endless possibilities.

But Elizabeth is right when she says, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (or, in easier language, “The Lord has blessed you because you believed that he will keep his promise.” (CEV). Mary will make some mistakes, suffer a lot, but she is a pattern for Christian life. She accepts difficulties and risks, because she is asked to play a part in God’s work, and believes the promises she is given.

As we get to Christmas, let’s remember all those people who took the risk of believing what God promised, and took their place in the story. Not just Mary and Joseph, but the unnamed shepherds, and the kind innkeeper. They remind us that we too are called to play a part in the ongoing story, to believe that what God promises will happen, and that the ordinary people are sometimes the most extraordinary.

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.

Is Jesus doing it right?

It is always important to ask the right questions. But I might not ask the questions other people would. They might hear Mark 7:24-37 and ask, “Is Jesus doing it right?” – and think not. Jesus seems reluctant to help – well he has tried to get away for a break with the disciples (in this part of the gospel he is spending more time teaching and preparing them for the cross to come). The idea that he ought to be healing people because that is what he does fails to understand that Jesus is much more than a miracle worker.

What is going on with the Syro-Phoenician woman? The clue is in the name. She doesn’t have the Jewish background that would help her see Jesus’ actions as the fulfillment of God’s promises (like those we read about in Isaiah). How can she see healing as a sign of God’s Kingdom? The answer seems to be, by Faith. Her dialogue with Jesus, far from taking offence and going away, shows that she is not only willing to engage with him, but to trust him. He sees that she has that gift, and it opens the way for her daughter to be cured. (Faith of the sort James would approve – very practical, not just words).

As through the Old Testament and into Jesus ministry, God dealt with his chosen people, who were prepared and taught for his plans to be put into effect, so there were always exceptions of those willing to join that hope and movement. This nameless woman adds to the list.

The second part of the reading is another story, about a deaf man who also had difficulty speaking. Notice how Jesus takes him away from the crowd. It seems to be concern for his understanding of what is happening, and that he not be assaulted by the noise of the crowd. He is healed (Isaiah 35 fulfilled!) He orders people not to speak of it – but that fails, for there is talk, and celebration. Jesus might worry that people will think he is building a celebrity reputation to run for power; or simply that people will not understand his Ministry and purpose.

The question “Was Jesus doing it right?” is not my question. I assume that the way Jesus chose was the one set by God. I suppose to begin with we have to be sure that Jesus is worth paying attention to – that he is doing things we think worthwhile. But after that, don’t we get to a point of wanting to learn how he does things – to imitate it? He’s not just about “doing good”, but very much “doing God” -as in bringing God’s Kingdom, fulfilling his promises. So, if in this or other passages, you find yourself asking Why? Or What’s going on? Please go on asking till you find answers. Jesus doesn’t always do things the way we would – but that may be because we need to learn His ways, as well as because we haven’t understood.

At the beginning of this reading, He was trying to get away and spend time with the disciples. Perhaps they learnt through these events. Perhaps we can too.

Are you receiving me?

(There is a dialogue sketch on Mark 6:1-13 available here).

How do you communicate with God? It’s a very personal thing, and should be. But it is also important, and so worth talking about.

People vary in the ways they relate. Some are more spontaneous, some more formal and organised – I remember a story about one person, who was said to pray as if he were addressing a business meeting, but – they said – that was all right because he talked to everyone like that.

The story of Jesus going to the synagogue in his home town (Mark 6:1-13) is sad. He is known to be a wise teacher and powerful worker of good miracles – but he is offensive because of his local background. Nobody suggests he has done anything wrong, it seems just to be that he can’t be taken seriously. It’s sad, because it means he can do little there – there isn’t the open communication, or the trust we call faith, which makes it possible to teach and heal.

But then the twelve are sent out on mission. Their confidence in Jesus has grown to a point where they can take a risk and try things for themselves. It will be an important leap forward in their faith, their understanding, and their communication skills. The instructions to take no provisions increase this – can it work? Yes, apparently God can do it.

So, how do you communicate with God? Is it a “wish list” of things wanted, or an expectation of emotions flattered and soothed? Is it about what you want, or is there a relationship where you can be honest about what you want and feel, but also listen for what God is doing and saying – even when that is not what you want to hear?

Are you like the locals, who didn’t want to take Jesus seriously and found excuses not to, or like the twelve, who (probably with very mixed feelings!) went and did what they were sent to, and as a result learnt and grew and celebrated?

Is God growing on you?

{There is also a 3 part Dialogue Sketch on Mark 4:26-34, available on the Dialogue Sketches section of this website – click here, or go to http://www.andrewknight.org.uk/dialogue-sketches/index-of-dialogue-sketches/mark-426-34-parables-of-the-kingdom/ }

How much space is there in your life for God?  You’re reading – a good start. But is this a secret interest, or does God get taken home, to work, to leisure activities, to everything?

When Jesus talked about a seed growing, and then about the mustard seed, (Mark 4:26-34) he probably needed to reassure his hearers: the way to make an impact was not revolution (regularly unsuccessful then, as often since), but planting the seed of the Kingdom of God. You must be joking! some would say, yet in his disciples, being entertained moved on to tolerance, and then to commitment, and that became something to change the world.

In  the first century, the faith of just 120 became something to rock Roman empire, survive it, and become largest religion now on earth. Jesus was right (we shouldn’t be surprised!) that seed does grow. But I was asking how much space there is in your life for God. I don’t mean “church” activity should elbow out everything else.  There are churches that do that, that fill your life so that you never meet anyone outside, have time for any other interests, and don’t get much chance to meet the wrong people. It’s not a good way of organising Christian life, because it doesn’t produce mature Christians, but hothouse plants who always need protecting. (That’s why I didn’t ask how much time you had for God, but how much space.)

The thing I wanted to point out was that the seed grows. You may remember this happening. Something started you, but since then, it’s grown. You can stop it – like a plant uprooted, deprived of light or water – but you don’t have to understand how it happens. Given space, faith will grow. As it grows, it is more than “Church on Sunday”, it begins to affect family, work, the way you spend free time, the way you think about things, and about yourself. You can stop it, refuse it some places, or let it grow.

Given time and good conditions the tiny seed of the kingdom grows until birds nest in the mustard shrub. Perhaps that’s just a comment about the size or security of the tree. Or perhaps Jesus is saying that we get to a point where our whole life – everything about us – is lived in faith and for God. It doesn’t mean we get terribly “religious”, obsessed by “churchiness” – after all, Jesus wasn’t like that. It does mean nothing is out of bounds to God. And if you think that means you never have a laugh, get time off, or anything to enjoy, look again at Jesus.

Now, I started by asking how much space there is in your life for God. Perhaps I ought to sharpen up that question and ask, not how much space, but “Are you letting God grow on you?”

Judged – for what?

Sometimes it really helps to understand Jesus words when we know what he is referring to.  This week we read Matthew 25:31-46, but it may be easier to first read the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel 34:11-24, which is also a reading for this Sunday which we call Christ the King.

When Ezekiel, prophet of the exile in the 6C BC, spoke of God shepherding his people, it was a direct and forthright criticism of the leaders of the nation. Read the rest of chapter 34, and you will find no excuses for the abuse of power by the powerful.  But the prophet has more to say than to denounce the leaders of the time. First, he makes clear that God is concerned – concerned not just with punishing the abuse and removing the abusers, but with stepping in to care for his victimised people.

But there is more. In verse 17 he says “I myself will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats”.  And in verse 23,“I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them:”

Jesus clearly finds several points of contact with Ezekiel’s prophecy. Yes, like it or not, Jesus is talking about judgement, and about a judgement which divides people into just 2 groups. In the context of his day, the criticism of the leaders of the people is very clear. They have opposed him, refused to hear his message or to recognise his God given status.

The basis of the judgement is not “Have you been nice to people?”, despite what so many seem to think. It is not even “have you been religious?”. Jesus says “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. Earlier in the gospel (chapter 12:48f) he has made it clear that his “family” are not the blood relations, but those who followed him. It seems that here he is saying that our support of, and identifying with, poor Christians is critical.

You will understand why we read this today, on the the feast of Christ the King, last Sunday before Advent. The promised King Messiah, descendant of King David, has arrived. He will assume the role of shepherding leadership of the people, and will be judge of all.

But what are we supposed to learn, and – perhaps more important – do? We know that we are not saved by being good enough – because we are never up to God’s standard. Our hope is that faith in Jesus, and the forgiveness he offers, brings us to new life now and after this life.

The punch line is that it has to be real. Christian faith is not about mental acrobatics, or sophisticated pretending. Our faith is a trust which has to work through and show in every part of our life. There is an old joke which says, “If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Would you, perhaps, be able to pass it off – I didn’t really mean it, just went along with some friends, it didn’t change the way I worked, or spent money, or who I socialised with. . . .

We won’t frighten people into heaven with talk of judgement, but as Christians we dare not be unprepared to face our Judge. Is my faith more than words and vague good intentions? Am I prepared to support and stand with Christians, even poor, vulnerable and needy Christians against their sophisticated and rich critics? Both sheep and goats seem surprised at the judgement – but neither argue the truth of it.

Readiness – and Remembrance

I’ve always had a certain sympathy for Ethelred the Unready. I know little about him – but his title suggests he was a very British king, and on the day we in Britain remember our War victims I am reminded of him. My impression – totally subjective and unrepresentative – is that whenever there is a war, the first months are spent in shock and complaint at how unprepared we are to fight. We shouldn’t be, but . .

Of course, you can understand why: there are always other things to do. The cost of a fighter plane, for instance, is huge – and there are always alternatives. We can do without a plane, say the planners, build a new school. Or think of the cost of a new warship – we could equip a hospital for that, so keep the old one going a bit longer . . So it goes on in peacetime, but when war threatens, we don’t like to admit it. Carry on as normal, we say; we don’t want to be seen as threatening, we say; to build up our forces would be seen as hostile, we say. And we go to war unprepared and underequipped. Wasn’t it the case that most of the troops who crossed the Falkland Is in record time had bought their own boots, rather than wear the army issue?

Wars, thankfully, come to an end. But sadly, we don’t seem to be much better at preparing for peace. We ought to be, but . . We’ve all heard of the hope of a “land fit for heroes” after the First War – and know of the grim reality of the Depression, the General Strike and mass unemployment. It seems that today a fair – unfair -proportion of the homeless are ex-services personnel. It also seems to be the case that many of those who engage in violent armed crime have learnt the techniques of combat from military training, but somehow have turned them to unintended use, or have not been protected from the traumas of conflict and its aftermath.

I can’t offer any easy solutions for these problems, but remember them this week as we read Matthew 25:1-13. Jesus tells a story about girls unready for the delayed arrival of the bridegroom. They shouldn’t be, but . . . Interestingly, they all sleep, but as they wake, some are found to be prepared and others not. Shouldn’t they have shared their supplies of oil, you wonder? Well, that depends what that oil represents. It may be that they are not unduly cautious, or mean, but that the oil is something which cannot be shared.

Jesus is thinking of the time when he will return; he is warning his followers to be prepared and ready. Matthew tells the story, knowing that the church can very easily get absorbed in the routine of now – church life, business life, the crises of family – they all provoke a drowsiness. They shouldn’t be like that, but . . . But what will happen when the big wake-up call comes?

Then we discover what people are made of. Faith is the key thing – and faith cannot be transferred from one person to another. Your faith can help other people, but they can’t take it over, or inherit it. When Jesus returns, he won’t only be hoping to find faith. He will look for those whose faith has made them open to grace, and in whose characters and lives the oil of grace has worked a transformation. They will have learnt love; their hope will not be easily discouraged. Humility will help them make themselves useful even in unglamorous work, and their gifts will be put to serve people wherever they are. These are the unsung heroes of wartime – and peace as well.

A crisis shows people up, and some have what it takes and others don’t. We are warned to stock up on the oil of grace while it is available – work with God now, while there is time. Today we remember the casualties of war. Many died young. We record our thanks for the opportunity they gave us to reach a normal span of years in freedom.

And the gospel asks:
have those years we are given brought us to maturity?
have we reached our potential?

Don’t talk about wealth or reputation, qualifications or family size. Talk about faith and character; about the way God’s grace has been received; the way the HS has produced fruit of character and the gifts of service. If we have got it right, we shall be ready:
ready to meet human crisis and disaster
ready for Jesus return to require an account of our stewardship

If not, we shall be selfish, offendable, fragile and proud.
“the bridegroom came, and those who were ready
went with him into the wedding banquet,
and the door was shut.” Mt 25:10

Racist?

Was Jesus a racist?  It might not be question you would ask, but imagine a journalist today picking up Matthew 15:21-28 as a news item!  Jesus has come out of Jewish territory – perhaps deliberately for a bit of peace – and seems to ignore a woman asking for help. Worse, she is described as “Canaanite” – the name of the corrupt pagan tribe the Israelites had displaced during the conquest of the Promised Land.

This is not casual prejudice.  Jesus had sent out his 12 disciples (Matthew 10:5,6) “not .. to any Gentile territory or any Samaritan towns . . to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” The first call was to the people God had chosen for a special purpose – not all peoples were equal!  There was a reason, of course.  It was not some “superiority” in this nation, but the fact that their history should have prepared them for Jesus and his mission.

It is clear Jesus was not hostile to foreigners –  in Matthew 8:5-13, we had read of the healing of the (Gentile) Centurion’s servant, and Jesus’ comment on his faith.  Here again, we have, after hesitation, and conversation, healing of a “foreigner”, and at a distance.  I suggest the problem is not in Jesus’ behaviour, but in our question. If we fail to think, we assume Jesus must match up to our standards. In fact, the reality is the other way, and we must understand and adapt to his.  It is from his teaching and example we get the value given to other humans, including those of different race, language and culture.  All are valued by God, and the Christian gospel, preached first to those prepared by their history, is open to all.

At the same time, different cultures, like individuals, are not the same. Israel was chosen by God for a special job, and the gospel had to be preached first to them. The centurion, and this Canaanite woman, anticipate a later stage when all may come by faith to Christian faith – and there remains a distinction between those who do, and those who do not. Christian, and non-believer.

The fight against racism is a Christian one, reflecting the understanding that every human is made in the image of God, and is of value to him. None are to be dismissed or devalued.  But that does not mean that all cultures are of equal value – nor that ours is all good. There are parts of our culture that are thoroughly rotten. How do we judge them? Against common opinion? No. Against the standards of Jesus. If we lose the ability to tell the truth, that is bad. If we fail to care for the weak and helpless, that is bad – by gospel standards. In the same way, other cultures may need correction, not because we say so, or in comparison with “British” ways, but against the standard of Jesus.

Jesus wants to announce God’s Kingdom to his chosen people first – and that is right. If a centurion and a Canaanite woman are given faith to anticipate the situation after Easter, Matthew will record that to show his church how all are accepted by faith – but not to suggest that all people and all cultures, let alone all creeds, are equal.

I hope that you do stand against Racism, and make the effort to bridge the gap of language and culture to strangers. I also hope that you realise that cultures, and individual actions, are not all of equal value, and to be weighed not by the popular opinion of the moment, but by the teachings and actions of Jesus. Weigh actions by Jesus’ standard.

Obey?

(A dialogue sketch on 1 Peter 3:13-22, a reading this Sunday, is available here )

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15 and again “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me;” John 14:21 – both included in this week’s reading of John 14:15-21.  It would seem that obedience is commanded, and indeed that the effective presence of the Holy spirit in a believer is in some way conditional on such obedience. In a past world, that would have seemed pretty straightforward.

But our culture has moved away from obedience, and is unclear whether to see it as a virtue. Perhaps for some it came from the Nuremberg war-crime trials, which established that obedience to superior orders is no defence – we must only do what we judge to be right, even if it means rejecting the orders of others. For others, the civil rights and protest movements will have reduced respect for authority, and psychological studies like the 1961 Milgram experiment (which showed normal volunteers capable of inflicting, as they thought, painful and even fatal electric shocks on people when encouraged to do so by an authority figure) will have strengthened objections.

So, does obedience still have a place in faith? I think so, though I want to take these objections seriously. What Jesus says is not “Do as I tell you”. In fact, what he tells us is not mainly simple instructions like “Pray for 10 minutes twice a day”, but much more complex things like “Love God and love your neighbour” (eg Mark 12:30-31). So these verses do not say “obey” but “keep my commandments” – keep, look after, be mindful of.

This isn’t the mindless obedience of the bayonet charge, doing because you’re told to. Quite the opposite, it is an invitation to value and practise things you know to be good.  This is clearer when we see that the condition is “If you love me, .” If we are familiar with the facts of Jesus’ life and teaching, and enthusiastic enough about them, are attracted to them strongly enough, find them to have greater significance and importance than others – then we are going to value them and put them into practise.

So, is there a place for obedience in faith? Yes. Don’t I just mean we do what we think is right? No.  We look at the life, works and teaching of Jesus, and find that important beyond other things. We value and apply his teaching, and in doing that we learn that we never do so perfectly, because of our own weakness, sin, and failure. We also discover – perhaps in other people – that sin affects our judgement. I can be rational, but rational about my own weaknesses – that is much harder.

So, as I think about what is right and what I should do, I apply the teaching of Jesus, the New Testament and the Bible to my situation and culture – AND in those things I find difficult or tempting, I add extra weight to what they say, distrusting (but not discarding) my thoughts when they disagree. In other words, I find it necessary to obey more over things which tempt me, or which have caused me to fail in the past.

The direction of Power

The story of Jesus visiting his friends and raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45) is a powerful introduction to the crucifixion and resurrection – though Lazarus is brought back to human life, and will die again, and Jesus is resurrected, to eternal life with no further death to face.  You can see why we read it on Passion Sunday, looking forward to the final events of Jesus’ earthly life. It stands with the raising of the widow’s son at Nain, and of Jairus’ daughter, as signs of Jesus power, even over death.

But it is not only Jesus Power, it is about his motivation. In fact there are at least 2 other things to see in this story.  Jesus cares about these people. They are friends. He knows how different the 2 sisters are – Martha will meet him with forthright words, Mary with emotion. Jesus accepts that. He sympathises, and is moved to tears himself. Yes, his power, and this action, is important – but he is no showman, manipulating his audience to do tricks. Lazarus restored life will be a witness, and a support to the family.

So we learn about Jesus power, but also about his sympathy and relationship with this family and its members.  Thirdly, again importantly, we see how his conversations deepen the faith of Martha, Mary, and the others there. Martha: “Yes, Lord, I Believe that you are the Messiah”. Mary just comes to Jesus and kneels at his feet. For the moment, they are entirely bound up in their bereavement (which would have had serious consequences for their lives). Yet it will not be long before the faith now dawning and strengthening will be essential to them as Jesus disciples are scattered after his execution.

Are we just onlookers? I hope not. We need to know each of those 3 things, and to know them not just intellectually, with book learning.

  • Jesus is powerful. Some idea of what he can do is vital for us to trust.
  • Jesus cares. Even minor characters – the ones we might call unimportant – get loving and sympathetic treatment.
  • Jesus wants to talk with us about faith, life, and where we are going. Only when that happens can we find our way – His way – forward.

I imagine Mary said many times, “Why did it have to be like this?” We could answer, we are so glad it was like that, and written down for us to benefit!