Tag Archives: prophecy

Suffering and Supremacy

In several of the Easter stories, including this week’s Luke 24:36b-48, there is reference to the Old Testament writing about Jesus’ ministry.  Modern Christians have largely given up the idea that Jesus can be “proved” from Old Testament prophecy, and that seems right.  However, the fact that you cannot prove Jesus in that way does not mean that there is not a great deal to be usefully thought through and understood from the Old Testament texts.  With the benefit of hindsight, those who accept Jesus as Lord can look back and enrich their understanding.

During his ministry, Jesus was shy of using the title King (Messiah, “Anointed One”, the promised descendant of King David, who would come to rule a golden age).  It is not that he was not the Messiah, but he would combine “Messiah” with the “Suffering Servant” prophesied by Isaiah.  This hadn’t been predicted – or at least had not entered popular understanding.  Indeed, who could have imagined that the victory of the Messiah would come in criminal execution? Only after the resurrection can Jesus use time with his disciples to explain.

We can sympathise with the disciples, who heard Jesus warnings of coming suffering without really taking them in.  Later, they were remembered and recorded in the gospel. We have the benefit of hindsight. We ought to hear, understand and remember.

What do we hear? Prophecies of the King, descendant of David, mix with the Suffering Servant, whose suffering is extreme, yet somehow beneficial.  This is not all!  There are many other elements, both descriptive (eg the prophet like Moses of Deuteronomy 18), and specific (eg Micah locates the birthplace of the Messiah in Bethlehem). It is good to read the Old Testament with an eye open for such glimpses of who is to come, and how his ministry will work.

And it is important that God chose to act in that way. The good news of the gospel is not “We win, you lose, – tough”, but much better news. Hope for all, through repentance and forgiveness, won by a suffering Messiah, who gives those who suffer hope both for the future, and that there may be purpose in what they endure.  Jesus kingship is not yet another revolution, which in time will be replaced by the next group to grab power and rubbish their predecessors.  It is a lasting Kingdom, giving more than it takes, and offering support to those who do not wish to do others down, but long for hope and relief.

Excitement!

Mark begins his gospel (Mark 1:1-8) with an excitement, which I hope has not worn off. To him religion and the message he has to deliver is not only important, and therefore serious, but also exciting and good. Losing that sense of excitement can be one reason why religion becomes boring – and that is the death of motivation!

The good news – the gospel – is of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Again, something we lose sight of at our peril. Jesus is not only God’s gift, through whom we can see the invisible God, and understand what the incomprehensible Deity is like. Jesus is also the way we are brought back to God, forgiven and freed. Mark doesn’t waste time or paper – this is the first line of his gospel!

So, how does it start? With an Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, and his announcement of a messenger to prepare the way. As Mark will make clear, the whole Old Testament has been unfolding God’s plan, and preparing the way for the coming Messiah, the great King. As we shall discover, the King was rather different to what was expected, and so preparation was needed. The prophecies of Isaiah’s book play a part (they feature in Carol Service readings!), not least by creating hope and expectation – an important element.

Then there is John the Baptist. verse 4. Mark understands him to be the messenger Isaiah was talking about, and he comments on his dress and prophetic style. Prophecy had died some hundreds of years before, but its sudden rebirth is a sign of something happening. John calls people to repentance, as part of making ready for his successor. The message is for rich and poor, religious and secularised, and is uncompromising and straightforward: You need to be forgiven, and before my successor comes!

There’s a buzz about all of this. Excitement, urgency, something more than personal preparation. Now is the time to face up to things we have been avoiding. Now we can sort out and put right. Now we can get ourselves right with God, other people and ourselves. It had better be now, because something new is coming which will take our time, effort and attention, but needs us to be ready.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. . . .

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Rewards ?

We read in Matthew 10:40-42 of rewards, but don’t think God owes us a place in heaven.  It is hard to say tactfully that none of us – not even the best – earns favour.  To think of marching up to the gates of heaven and asking for what we deserve would be disastrous.  By comparison with the holy goodness of God, we all fail and cannot hope to meet the standard.  What we deserve – is judgement, a “fail”.

Mercifully, that is not the end of the story!  God’s goodness has made an opportunity for us through Jesus and his sacrifice.  Accepting as a gift what he has done, we are offered not only forgiveness, but also a new life and status as God’s children.  (That is by adoption, not by right, so we talk about God’s “grace”).  So we live as those who are free, turning our backs on evil and walking the Christian way in thanks.  Yes, we still try to do the right thing, but as a reaction to a God whose love is beyond expectation, not as earning a place.

But what about rewards?  They are talked about several times in the New Testament.  Those who welcome Christians will benefit. Their welcome or kindness may help them hear the good news that will free them for ever.  Jesus explains more fully in Luke 18:29,30:

“Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he [Jesus] said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

So some of the reward is in this life.  [There is more about rewards, for example in Matthew 6 which has much to say about hypocrisy and “looking good”.  1 Corinthians 3 also has some comments about the rewards of Christian ministry.]

If all this sounds great, there is a warning in the Old Testament lesson.  Jeremiah 28:5-9 is an extract from a longer story of conflict between Jeremiah and Hananiah.  Jeremiah had spoken of God’s judgement on an unfaithful people, and his ministry has cost him popularity and his security.  Hananiah prophecies a rapid return of the exiles and life as usual – a popular message, avoiding difficult issues of responsibility and the need to repent of wrongdoing.  While he would like it to be true, Jeremiah emphasises the test of prophecy (does it come true?), and later accurately prophecies judgement on the false Hananiah.  Those who speak for God have to keep to God’s messages; it is a sad warning!

So we have the encouragement of knowing that our Christian mission is not unnoticed, and will be rewarded.  Alongside that comes the reminder to be faithful.  It cannot be right to say just what people want to hear as if it was God’s message.  Indeed, to pretend to know God’s will without understanding can be – fatal.  If that is a sobering thought, it emphasises the importance of the gospel, and our witness to it by action and word.  Getting it right matters!

Rotten?

We seem to find it easy to point out what is going wrong.  Whether it is in the wider world, or locally to us, we know what we don’t like.  We complain, and gather people who make the same sort of complaints, but don’t often do anything positive.

Jesus will not let us get away with that.  “You are the salt of the earth . .” he says at the beginning of today’s gospel (Matthew 5:13-20).  Salt was vital when it preserved food – and Christians are still meant to stop things going rotten. They should, even in small amounts, prevent corruption and decay.  Of course salt is less popular in diets now, as Christian ideas seem to be in some parts of society.  We might want to moan about the cost – in broken families, or lives endangered by addictions, but again, Jesus won’t encourage moaning.  If we are to be salt, we have to preserve what is good.

“You are the light of the world . . ”  It is so much easier to criticise than to live a better way.  But that is our calling.  Be light, show the way, bring hope – not to make a personal reputation or build an ego, but to bring glory to God.  This is not easy reading, but an invitation to be part of the solution.

God has been working on that solution for a long time.  Jesus will build on Old Testament Law and prophecy – but will avoid some of the tradition that has build up around religion.  He is more faithful to God and the promises, yet heavily critical of those confident of their own goodness.  How can we hope to do better than those known for their devotion to “professional religion”? Only by knowing our need of forgiveness and grace.  “Religious observance” is not enough.  We have to let God do what we cannot – forgive, transform our motivation, make us part of the family together bringing light and hope.

Expectations (Bible Sunday)

When Jesus went to synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-24), he announced the fulfillment of prophecy going back centuries, the opportunity for his hearers to be involved in the turning point of history, the moment God’s plans were put into action.

And they didn’t want to know.

They should have been ready.  The scriptures they read week by week, and discussed, had all the clues.  The Messiah was expected, the Servant was known from Isaiah – this was nothing new.  But the lack of expectation meant that Jesus could not be heard.  It was as if God was not welcome in synagogue.  What happened there had to conform, to affirm the social order and its leaders.  If Jesus wanted anything to change, Who Did He Think He Was!?  (a rhetorical question – a correct answer would have saved them).

It is not difficult to see how it could happen.  Social pressures can make us blind to what God is saying and doing.  But will I go to worship with an expectation of meeting God, of hearing – perhaps what I don’t want, or expect, to hear?  Will my congregation be ready to hear, pray, pick up the clues from scripture?  Will it matter enough to override other plans, assumptions, and the weariness of another week?

Jesus went to worship, but the congregation could not hear God.  It is the worst thing that can ever happen to a congregation.