Tag Archives: struggle

A new normal

Christmas is over; reluctantly we return to the “normal” – but our readings will take us by a different route, and to a version of normal we would do well to study. Ephesians (we read Ephesians 1:3-14) begins by reminding us of our blessings – but not to follow it with some stern admonition to get back to work! (even socially distanced work!). Jesus was chosen, and we are chosen also to be adopted as children. This is part of God’s grace (for it doesn’t arise from anything else), something to be sung about and celebrated.

Then we hit verse 7 with surprise: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace”. Somehow we don’t expect to be talking about the sacrifice of Jesus, his death as the price of our forgiveness, at Christmas. It almost seems in bad taste, but let’s be careful. Whose agenda are we following here? Doesn’t the story of Christmas lead on? Apparently not, in the secular / supermarket / primary school version.

And why not? It doesn’t fit with a sentamentalised version of the story. But why should it? Surely our purpose is to tell the story of what God has done, not the story we have re-written for children (what we think they would like) or our own amusement (leaving out the difficult bits). God’s story has a harder edge – bloodthirsty rulers and, yes, a baby born to die. Sacrifice – voluntary self-sacrifice – is always part of it, as is conflict, and disinterest, and struggle.

Our becoming God’s children is to be seen in this way, too. Yes, there is a genuinely and importantly emotional aspect of it. We are accepted, we belong, we find our true identity. And we are to grow up, to understand “the mystery of his will”; to know God and his plan, and to make it known. Our aim is not the easy life, but life “for the praise of his glory”.

Yes, we are leaving Christmas and going back to normal routine. But while the world leaves a fairytale, ruined by reality, we take with us the strength gained from the story of God’s coming. We know that his coming is just the first part, and there is more to understand and celebrate. We know that, just as the gospel story will make demands on Jesus life, so we are asked to do more than stand and watch. We are to be drawn in, to growing commitment, to service, and to life as God’s children in reality, not in fiction.

“In [Christ] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” A rather different, and much better, understanding of normal life, for those who will live it.

Bleak?

In Wales, we are half way through 2 weeks of Covid lockdown; England are just about to start 4 weeks of staying at home; other places also struggle. It is hard in many ways, and for once we share in difficult times.

Christians have to be realistic, and this is not an easy situation – but neither is it the full story. November 1st is often kept as All Saints day. Having survived Halloween, we turn to celebrate and give thanks for the less famous of God’s people. Revelation 7:9-17 is the fuller of the New Testament passages set for the day, and it has an encouraging picture to offer. Here is a picture of God’s kingdom, with much to celebrate and much to look forward to:

  • here is a crowd of people united. It’s not that they are alike: they are of many backgrounds, races, languages; but you might say they are singing from the same hymnsheet. They have a common purpose which makes their differences insignificant. Their focus is God, and together, happily, they worship
  • God is at the centre. Not because he insists it be so, nor because he is some sort of successful dictator. He is recognised for his love and faithfulness. This crowd know how he has healed, forgiven, and brought them together in a wonderful way which has given freedom, not taken it away.
  • And then there is the comfort and reassurance of the closing verses

and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

Revelation 7:15b-17

This is God’s kingdom, which we want to celebrate and live in. We start now, knowing that we haven’t got it all sorted, but that turning our backs on what is wrong and following Jesus is the way in, even when its not easy. Some of that crowd of saints had a hard time – so did Jesus – but the kingdom is worth it. Those promises are kept. That hope is realistic. That destination will not be in lockdown. Join the celebration, enjoy the view, keep on until arrival.

Tired?

October 18 is kept as the day to remember Luke, companion of Paul and writer of the third gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, so it is easy to see why we read 2 Timothy 4:5-17 – Luke is mentioned as being with Paul. As Paul writes to Timothy from prison, the first thing to say is that he is feeling sorry for himself (v6) – yet he wants his possessions brought to him. Verse 16 suggests he is alone, and perhaps feeling a bit vulnerable.

I hope it is not perverse to find that encouraging. It can be hard to be a Christian, and to go on in that way. We are called to receive God’s grace, to be re-made to advertise what he can do; but we are still – us. Sometimes the Christian life can be tough and depressing, and we need to think of being halfway to heaven as we struggle.

Perhaps that is how Timothy, as well as Paul, felt. Left to lead and sort out a Church, he is reminded “ proclaim the message” v2, even though there will be those who don’t want to hear the gospel of Jesus who died to set us free and leads us into holiness of life. There are times when the gospel becomes unfashionable, “uncool”, but it is always more than a personal preference, and the Christian must announce it by action and explanation. We could speculate about why people’s attention wanders off to other things – here it seems to be an ascetic way of life which is the alternative – but the point is to focus on God, what he has done and what he asks of us.

We, if we are those well established in church, have to remember the need to provide forms of service appropriate to outsiders and newcomers. How often the Sunday service is formed by the preferences of those who have been members for a long time, without a thought for those who might wander in out of curiosity – and find it all incomprehensible. We need to speak in services in ways that people who have never ever been to Church can hear, and understand as God’s word for them.

That’s not to say that everyone who hears will join up. I’ve already mentioned the way the gospel can become unfashionable. In the closing verses Paul speaks of opposition. Some have given up (v10), others have been longstanding opponents (v14). It’s not our responsibility to catalogue their mistakes, or act as policemen. Paul leaves that to God (as we should), but recognises the reality of a conflict situation (which hasn’t changed).

There are many encouraging voices in scripture. Isaiah 40:31 “ but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength” is one – but be careful how you offer such verses to others. They’re not a “quick fix”! Christian life can be hard, as Jesus found and warned his disciples. There is hope, and support, and reason to go on – and none of that cancels the tiredness and difficulty of the hard times, or the need to be gentle with those wounded in Christian conflict.

Perhaps Paul shouldn’t have been feeling sorry for himself, but I hope we can be sympathetic, as well as recognising the need to proclaim the message, and recognise desertion and opposition as realities. Perhaps it will help us to pace our own faith activities and endure.

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!

Target?

We begin Lent with the story of Jesus temptation.  He has just been baptised by John (Matthew 3:13-17), recognised not only by the Baptist, but by the heavenly voice affirming him as Son.  Then the Holy Spirit leads him away from the crowds to the wilderness, and we read Matthew 4:1-11.  It is as if the heavenly father adds, “But before anything else, there are a few things you need to sort out, Son.”  His forty days of fasting and struggle, the origin of our Lent, remind us both of the cost of Jesus’ ministry and also the strength he brought to this work.

Sometimes we focus on the three particular temptations – things which have so often made leaders corrupt and compromised:

  • there is the temptation to make life comfortable, a compensation for the stress of leadership.
  • there is the temptation to be a celebrity – to use power to make people take notice and obey.
  • there is the temptation to be the person who makes God do miracles.

Some of these affect us, too, and we can usefully be warned off.  But there is another thing here we can miss.  Jesus is struggling.  There is a real fight – but against who?  Many expected a Messiah to fight the Romans, but we don’t hear Jesus attacking Pilate, the Roman governor.  Herod was criticised by John the Baptist, but Jesus will not be his enemy.  He will warn people against the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, religious teachers, but they are not to be fought.  Even Judas receives kindness.

We have to understand that the fight against temptation is a fight against evil, but not a fight against other people.  (Paul says this in another way in Ephesians 6:12). No matter how stupid, how difficult to deal with patiently and in love, the enemy is not another human (for whom Jesus lived, died and rose again!), but the evil at loose in the world.  Evil will appear as pride, anger, self-pity, or in many other disguises eg as if concerned about the rights of others.  The grace is to recognise evil and temptation as cheats, with half truths and false promises.  Then with God’s help, we can go the way of real life, and freedom.