Tag Archives: success

The Climax

(There is also a Dialogue Sketch on this gospel passage, which you can read here.)

If you watch films classified as “Thriller”, or read paperbacks, you expect a Climax: chase, showdown. But you don’t know how it will start, or what form it will take.  This week, Passion Sunday, we find out how the gospel will climax.  Jesus will die.

The arrival of “Greeks” (John 12:20-33) – probably not Jews – seems to make Jesus aware of what is coming, and he talks of the death of a grain of wheat, and recoils in horror, (verse 27), before seeing the glory of God in this.

This is the climax of the gospel. This death, unjust, inhumanly cruel, marking the apparent victory of all that is against Jesus and the Kingdom he announces – this is the glory of the Son of God. That is exactly what they mean. Jesus is not going to march into Jerusalem as King and replace Herod, or Pilate, or even the High Priest. He will allow himself to be captured, condemned, flogged, and crucified. Then he will rise. No wonder he hesitates.

We still find this odd, and also recoil. How can this be? What sort of success is this? The answer is history – history we prefer to forget! Jesus’ Kingdom does last, and offer better hope to all, than any other.

And then there is this odd verse about judgement. John 12:31 “Now is the time for this world to be judged; now the ruler of this world will be overthrown.”  How can the cross bring judgement? Remember John 3:17 “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour”. What does this mean? John seems to be saying that the cross brings, not a judgement of demons carrying you away to the furnace, but – well compare

  • John 12:47 “If people hear my message and do not obey it, I will not judge them. I came, not to judge the world, but to save it.”
  • John 12:48 Those who reject me and do not accept my message have one who will judge them. The words I have spoken will be their judge on the last day!
  • And John 9:39 Jesus said, “I came to this world to judge, so that the blind should see and those who see should become blind.”

There is judgement for those who fail to see in the crucified Lord the Saviour – Messiah, Suffering Servant, Son of God. That the judgement is a missed opportunity, a continuing in darkness, makes it no less terrible. It does not make Jesus a punitive figure, the main actor in a “Sting” operation to catch the unwary. He remains the sign of God’s love, the costly opening of the door to life. But to refuse the life he offers is to take a dark and terrible way, and represents a most terrible judgement, equal, and greater, to the terrors he endured for us.

The Gospel is a thriller. Its climax comes at the Cross. At one and the same time, the Cross brings freedom, and judgement to those who will not take it.

Sowing?

In Ireland, they take longer over the weather forecast, and even include the statistics for grass growth over the last month in different areas!  Perhaps it is not surprising, given that agriculture is a rather more serious concern for the average person there than in the UK.

It may be that as we read Matthew’s account of the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23 – leaving out v10-17), we are brought up against what we are serious about.  It is meant to be an encouragement (like the rest of the chapter, all about the Kingdom of God).  Reading carefully, we may learn what is beyond our control (and not worth worrying about), and what is going on (to help if possible, and beware the dangers for ourselves).

Jesus knows that when the message of God’s Kingdom is sown (which applied to his ministry, and still to ours today) it is a call to loyalty, obedience and action.  The reaction to that call varies:

  • there are hard places, like the path which will be ploughed after sowing, but loses seed to birds.  Some people just want to know, they have their own agenda, know what they want – and it doesn’t include God.  For anything to grow there, it will have to be tucked into a gap made by the Holy Spirit.
  • The rocky ground is just shallow.  There is no problem getting a reaction here, but it is liable to pass on to the next enthusiasm, and the next.  If this ground can be cultivated (sometimes it can’t), honesty is needed.  To live the Christian life is the best thing you can do – but it will be hard at times.  More than ever you need other believers to watch out for you, pray for you, and need you to help them too.
  • The seed is never sown in sterile compost!  We all come with weeds – past hopes, habits and hang-ups.  To get through these, not only do we need honesty, but also to know the worth of God, and the temporary nature of so much that seems to tempt or threaten.

This parable may be very familiar to you, but I suggest it may reveal how serious we are about sowing God’s Kingdom, and living it.  Don’t be surprised or upset that some sowing of the Kingdom fails to grow – it doesn’t mean the seed is bad, or the sower useless.  Understand the problems, if that will help.  But above all realise that sowing will produce a harvest, a good and significant one.  Jesus’ disciples needed to know that when his ministry hit opposition – and they still do.

Go on, and on, and . . (Pentecost 22c, Proper 24c)

Sometimes you find something which is hard to make sense of.  Perhaps you think it is telling you what you don’t want to hear – or, even worse, what you think other people might want to throw at you.  Take Luke 18:1-8, one of Jesus’ stories about a widow and an unjust judge.  Is it a justification of nagging? a suggestion that God is reluctant to listen and has to be bullied?  I think not (but it may explain why the other gospel writers don’t include this story).

This is about persistence, but to understand its significance we need to look at the story.   Jesus makes the point that we should always pray, and not become discouraged or lose heart.   Why would that happen? Because things don’t seem to be going our way, aren’t working out the way we expected or hoped.

So the story is about a widow (no influence, money . .) and an unjust judge (not bothered about justice – but hoping for a bribe, except that in this case, not much chance of that). He can’t be bothered to give justice – until he reckons its worth it for a quiet life.  Is God like the judge? No, Jesus is saying EVEN if a judge like that (who doesn’t care for justice, people . .) can be persuaded, HOW MUCH MORE will God (who longs to give good things) answer our prayers.  He isn’t comparing God and the judge, but making the contrast.

So, why do we need to persist? All the parable tells us is that persistent prayer works. We aren’t told why – but we can have a guess.  Sometimes our prayers sound as if we are giving God good advice on how to run the world. We flit from subject to subject. But the things that we come back to are the things that matter most to us – and the things we are prepared to get involved with.  God is prepared to work with us.  He is even prepared to change the way he deals with things according to what we will take on. And – we might guess – persistence, coming back to one subject again and again, is an indication that we mean business, and he can work with us.

Let me give you an example. We might pray for our church. We often do. The success of that prayer is not about how good we sound when we pray, or how carefully the words are crafted or read, or how long we keep producing more words. But if people who really want a thriving Christian community (so turn up, work, put up with and solve problems), the more God effectively can use them in his plans, and the greater the blessing.  That is only a guess at how it might work. But it does take seriously this parable (that we need to persist in prayer and not be discouraged), as well as the reminder in Matthew 6:7,8a that heaping up empty phrases gets us nowhere.

Don’t lose the last words, “will the Son of Man find faith on earth when he comes?” Its easy to run down, get tired, think other people ought to be doing things now. Christians need persistence.

Waiting (Easter 7c)

I wonder if it was uncomfortable being with the disciples for the ten days between Jesus’ Ascension and the Day of Pentecost?  Waiting is not my favourite activity, and I imagine other people also find it difficult.

Of course, when the waiting is over, it doesn’t always make everything easy.  Luke tells us of the need to wait by showing the power of the Holy Spirit in the adventures of the early Christians in the book of Acts.  They needed the help.  Clearly, this is not their own planning or ability displayed, but something more.

Acts 16:16-34, read this Sunday, tells of Paul’s ability to deal with spirit possession.  (This is not a denial of psychiatry – most “possession” in the western world is psychiatric illness, but evil spiritual power is also real, and telling the difference needs some care and training).  He gets no thanks, but the girl is freed – and so is a jailer and his family!  Remarkable events, catalysed by the different lives of the Christians, and their readiness to take the opportunities that occur.

Perhaps this is more relevant to today’s Church than we might like to think.  What are we waiting for?  Perhaps again the coming of the Holy Spirit to transform lives – quietly or dramatically, but in a real way.  That will help us understand how we are meant to serve our communities, be a blessing to individuals, and provoke questions from those who want to share the benefit.

I find it reassuring that Paul, like the other early Christians, is not pictured as an ideal or perfect person, simply as one through whom the Holy Spirit was able to do great things.  The challenge is that there is no reason why that shouldn’t happen to me – or to you.

Failure and Success (Lent 6c, Palm Sunday)

Palm Sunday – sixth in Lent and last before Easter – invites us to read a longer section of the Passion story.  (Luke 22:14 – 23:56, or the shorter but still substantial Luke 23:1-49).  It is not an easy story – not to read, to enjoy, even to understand.

All the gospel writers insist that this is no mistake or accident.  Jesus goes to his death knowingly, and, while horrified at the nature of it, willingly.  The story is the climax of the gospel, and represents the victory of God’s plan.  How can this be victory?  That is the paradox, the challenge to our usual ways of thinking of success.  Only when we glimpse what this is all about can we say we understand – and even then, we will tend to lapse into old ways of thinking.  Somehow, Jesus execution is what sets us free.

It may help to look at the many failures that happen.  Jesus friends fail.  Their loyalty rapidly disappears; their understanding was even more limited, and their sympathy is overwhelmed by fear and exhaustion.  The governing authorities fail to govern properly.  The justice system fails repeatedly.  Even at the most basic level, the soldiers who mock and then gamble as men die, lack humanity.  Those failures contrast with God’s success.  God remains in charge, and the loving plan to work our salvation moves on to completion despite human failure.  The contrast is so extreme that it dazzles.

At the same time, those who pass judgement seem unaware that there is double trial in process.  Jesus may be under judgement, but so are the judges.  As their scorn, their contempt for evidence, procedure, and equity are documented, they face appraisal – and fail.  We like to think that we can sit back as superior beings, judging the judges.  We easily forget that all who read of the Passion and death of God’s Son are themselves liable to appraisal on their reaction.