Archive for March, 2014

John 9.1-5, 39-41

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

The ninth chapter of John’s gospel tells of the healing of the man blind from birth
It’s a long reading for a worship service; but it needs to be treated as a whole

The chapter falls naturally into three parts
Not sequentially: beginning, middle and end
But like three boxes nested together, one inside the other

At the centre of the chapter is an argument
A dispute, between the man Jesus healed and the Pharisees of the local synagogue

Wrapped around this dispute, before and after it, is the story of the healing
Enclosing the whole thing is a theological question – raised in the first verses of the chapter, and answered in the last verses
Those are the verses we’ve just heard

The actors in this part are Jesus, his disciples, and the Pharisees
The theological question is: what is the origin of suffering?
Do we suffer for our faults? Does suffering come from God?

This idea of inherited guilt is based on verses in books of the Law like Exodus, which say that God will punish the children for the sins of their parents, down to the third or fourth generation

This idea found its way into folk sayings
Jeremiah and Ezekiel both repeat the same saying: the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge

But what the prophets actually said was, this is no longer true
People will suffer for their own sins

Jesus shifts the whole argument one step further
The says, the issue isn’t one of sin and retribution at all
The past doesn’t matter

What matters is, what’s about to happen
The moment of revelation is the time of judgment:
How do you respond to Jesus?

The blind man and the Pharisees respond to Jesus in completely different ways
They dramatically show how true are Jesus’ words: ‘I came into this world for judgment’

When the light of Christ is revealed, suddenly the blind man can see
When the light of Christ is revealed, the Pharisees see even less than they did before

The cause of their blindness is pride
Spiritual pride: pride in what they think they know about God
Pride in their supposed descent from Moses and the patriarchs
They impose on themselves the sentence of blindness

We don’t know how the disciples responded, because the passage doesn’t tell us
The writer of the gospel wants us to put ourselves in their shoes
We’ve heard the story: how are we going to respond to the revelation of Christ?

John 9.6-7, 35-38

When [Jesus] had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the [blind] man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

[The Pharisees questioned the man Jesus had healed, and drove him out of the synagogue. When Jesus found him,] he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him.

This passage raises a lot of questions
Scholars and commentators ask, why does Jesus make mud with his spittle and smear it on the blind man’s eyes?
Is he deliberately aping the rituals of folk magicians and healers?
Has the mud anything to do with the story in Genesis of how God formed the first man from clay?

Why does Jesus tell the man to wash in the Pool of Siloam?
Again, Jesus doesn’t usually tell people to wash as part of their healing

We know at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles the priests carried buckets of water from that pool every day, and poured them out in front of the altar in the Temple
It was intended to symbolise the living waters that would flow out from Zion to the whole world on the day of Israel’s vindication
Is Jesus trying to make a dramatic point, or engineer a confrontation?

We can’t answer these questions with certainty
All we can do is point to the obvious conclusions:
– That healing arouses opposition, because Christ does not offer his grace on anyone’s terms but his own
– That the new life in Christ threatens the old life of human institutions
– That the personal act of confession is central to arriving at the point of faith.

The last point is the most important one for us
The climax of the episode isn’t the healing
It’s the blind man’s words to Jesus: ‘Lord, I believe’
To really believe we must not only tell ourselves we believe: we must tell others

John 9.13-17, 24-34

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

For the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Reflection 3

In this third part of the story, Jesus is nowhere in sight
There is only the man who was blind, and the Pharisees

Our theme this morning is seeing and knowing
The man born blind is the one who sees; the Pharisees are the ones who claim to know

What do we mean when we say, ‘I know’?
Sometimes we use these words as an expression of empathy, of sympathy
Someone tells us their problems, they say how miserable or upset they are, how unfairly they’ve been treated, and we say, ‘I know’
We mean, ‘I understand how you feel. You’re right to be upset.’

Then there’s the other situation: When we use the same words to cut someone off
We say, ‘I know’; and we mean, ‘I already know’
‘I’ve heard everything you’re likely to say’
‘Nothing you can say will change my mind’

That’s how the Pharisees use the words, ‘We know’
‘We know that this man is a sinner’
We know who Moses is; we don’t know anything about this man Jesus
We don’t need to know; we don’t want to know

The centre of this passage is the blind man’s confession
‘One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see’

Time and time again in the gospels, we recognise the theme of the ‘one thing needful’
The man who was blind only knows one thing: ‘though I was blind, now I see’
The one thing he knows is the one thing needful: it’s the foundation of a saving faith

We probably all saw on television this week a woman weeping tears of helpless joy
Because after a lifetime of deafness, an operation allowed her to hear
The man born blind had the same experience of overwhelming joy.

When the man opened his eyes at the pool of Siloam, Jesus was already gone
So he did not see Jesus; and yet he believed, and because he believed, everything was changed

No eye has seen, no ear has heard,
nor any human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

These words, that Paul quotes from Isaiah, say what our Christian life is all about:
Not the pride of knowing all about God, or making other people do what we want
But the sense of blessing that surprises us, when Christ opens our eyes to the reality of his love, and when we seem him bless others through us

All readings adapted from the New Revised Standard Version

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Exodus 17.1-7  John 4.5-15  Romans 5.1-5

Suffering is a problem for faith: If God is all-powerful, surely he can sort things out?

Our theme this morning is grace and reconciliation
Through grace we come to faith: Through faith we are reconciled to God

I think this fact of reconciliation goes wider than we might think
When we are reconciled to God, we are reconciled to life in this world as we wait for the final transformation of all things
We are reconciled to suffering
Suffering doesn’t vanish: but we look on suffering with a transformed attitude

John Calvin had a simple explanation of the problem of suffering
And why the innocent seem to suffer as much or more than the guilty
We know he divided humanity into the elect, who are saved, and the reprobate, who are not
The elect reveal by their good works that they are saved
The reprobate reveal by their wicked ways and evil deeds that they are not
Yet both will suffer at times

Calvin’s explanation was this: God allows the elect to suffer, to test them
God allows the wicked to suffer, to drive them to destruction

I wouldn’t put it quite so brutally: but Calvin had a point

When the people Calvin regards as the wicked suffer, they don’t embrace their suffering
They harden themselves against it

‘Hardening’ is a word the Bible uses to label unhelpful ways people respond to suffering
– They catastrophise: they regard every difficulty as if it was the end of the world
– They resent it: they blame their suffering on others; they feel it is something they don’t deserve
– They rebel against it: they feel suffering is something inflicted by an unjust God
I wouldn’t feel smug: none of us are strangers to these feelings

The psalmist warns us against this hardening when he recalls how the people quarrelled with Moses in the wilderness, because they had no water:

Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

We must not put God to the test; We must not submit God to human quality control

Not just because God doesn’t like it
But because to harden ourselves is bad for us;
It prevents us being reconciled to God: it turns our hearts from God; it stops us growing

Paul says, ‘We boast in our sufferings’; ‘We rejoice in our sufferings’

That’s something that’s hard to accept; so Paul spends quite a bit of time explaining it
Paul outlines a four-step process in these verses:

suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope

Hope, in other words, begins with suffering
This is not the modern, Western medical view of suffering
It’s almost the opposite

Our instinct is to avoid suffering
Or to look for ways to make it go away
Or if we can’t make it go away to look for compensations, ways of drowning it out, or covering it up

The medical view of suffering is the ordinary human view
Suffering doesn’t produce endurance: it wears our endurance away
It doesn’t produce character: it causes fear, anxiety, depression, even the disintegration of personality
And so it seems madness to suggest that suffering ultimately leads to hope

Suffering is a problem for faith
There are two important errors to avoid
Firstly, faith does not claim that faith prevents suffering
Secondly, this is our own suffering we’re not talking about: not other people’s
When someone else is suffering we’re supposed to help them, not tell them to cheer up

But although he doesn’t say so explicitly in these verses, Paul believes that faith is a solution to the problem of suffering
Faith transforms suffering
Because suffering is the key to experiencing the love of Christ

Suffering is transformed by the knowledge of the love of Christ
Because in Christ we have access to the deepest peace
It’s like being swept away in a torrent, and feeling panic
But then putting out your foot, and finding you can touch the bottom after all
It’s the feeling of assurance

Faith offers this assurance, because the Christ of faith is Jesus who suffered
Jesus who suffered, and died, and rose again

The worst that suffering can do to us now is remind us that we will die
But that doesn’t shake our faith: we already know we will die
We also know we will live, because the Christ who rose will raise us, too

So in the midst of suffering there is always hope,
Suffering no longer robs us of hope; suffering reminds us of our hope

Paul sets out the process that leads to this realisation
We begin in the present, with the fact of suffering
We move to the future just beyond the onset of suffering
To the point where we raise our eyes and discover through prayer we are not alone

When we realise Jesus is with us in our suffering, the knowledge of his love blesses us with endurance
The capacity to endure suffering, moment by moment while it lasts

Paul moves to the future, beyond an individual episode of suffering
To the point where we realise, that God is using the experience of suffering to train us
God is using our experiences of suffering to develop character

What is character? Character is being mindful: mindful of God, and mindful of others
Character is being prepared for one’s own sufferings; being ready and available to turn to others who are suffering

Finally Paul moves to the eschatological future: he thinks about the last things
For those who have experienced grace and the knowledge of Christ’s love
For those who have endured suffering
For those whose endurance has developed character
—  there is hope

Hope is the emotional heart of the Christian faith
Hope shapes our world
Hope shapes our view of our own lives
Our faith is hope: faith in everything we hope to receive in Christ, in this world and beyond this world

We are justified; we are reconciled
We are reconciled with God
And so we are reconciled to everything we might experience in this world
There is nothing in this world that can deprive us of the hope God has given us
Nothing can deprive us of his peace

I want us to be a hopeful church
A hopeful church isn’t ruled by anxiety
A hopeful church isn’t ruled by fear
A hopeful church is a loving church

I talked to a couple about to get married about their wedding
They want the service to include the famous passage on love from First Corinthians:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Love and hope are almost the same thing
Love expresses in the here and now the hope we have for our future beyond death

Love is always a gamble
Love involves going out on a limb for another person

But people blessed with hope as we are can afford to gamble
Because people blessed with hope as we are can never lose.

Gen 12.1-4a    Rom 4.1-5, 13-17

The Methodist hymn book, Hymns & Psalms, tells us that the great theme of Lent is the King and the kingdom

There are six sub-themes, one for each week:
Week 1 Temptation
Week 2 Conflict
Week 3 Suffering
Week 4 Transfiguration (we had that a couple of weeks ago)
Week 5 The victory of the cross
Week 6, Palm Sunday: the way of the cross

We had temptation last week – so far, so good
This is week 2, so I should be talking about conflict

I wonder which of our readings this week best exemplifies the theme of conflict:
– The Genesis reading, where God blesses Abraham with a land, and a name, and descendants, and promises to bless the whole world through Abraham: not much conflict there
– The psalm, where the psalmist promises that the Lord will keep us from all evil and protect our lives: not much conflict there either
– The reading from Romans perhaps, where Paul explains how God has fulfilled in Christ all the promises he made to Abraham: still not much conflict – and only one more reading to choose from
– The gospel reading, where Jesus tries to explain to Nicodemus that he is not simply a human teacher wiser than the rest

I’m bit stuck. Four readings, no conflict

But the Romans passage is all about justification
Paul’s central doctrine of justification by faith, rather than works

Justification is a divine act where God forgives sinners their sins
It is a legal act, like the decision of a court
But perhaps it’s more like a family court than a criminal court
Because justification means having your relationship with God put right

Our theme this morning is the sense of belonging
Justification restores the sense of belonging with God we lost through sin

We believe that the central purpose of Christ’s work on earth was to justify us: to set us right with God
The question is, how are we justified?
Protestants say essentially, through individual faith enabled by grace
Catholics say essentially, through good works rewarded by grace, and the sacraments of the Church

The doctrine of justification by faith has probably caused more conflict in the western church in the last six hundred years than any other

The doctrine of justification by faith divided Catholics from Protestants
It divided Lutheran churches from Reformed churches
Within the Reformed churches, it divided Calvinists from Arminians

Protestants couldn’t agree with Catholics about justification
Protestants relied on texts like Romans 1.16, where Paul says, “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith”
So justification comes only through individual faith, and faith is a free gift given in grace
But Catholics disagree; they say grace can be earned by good works

Reformed churches couldn’t agree with Lutherans about justification
Lutherans said justification by faith alone was ‘the ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines’
Reformed churches couldn’t bring themselves to go quite that far

Calvinists couldn’t agree with Arminians because they thought Arminians tried to give human beings too much say in their own salvation.

An Arminian in this context is not a native of the country of Armenia. An Arminian is someone who follows the teachings of Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian of the 16th century

This wasn’t a quarrel between John Calvin and Jacob Arminius
It was a quarrel between their followers

A group of Arminius’s followers called the Remonstrants were struggling to accept some of the beliefs about salvation the church had drawn from Calvin’s writings
They asked the Dutch authorities to consider five statements, that softened some of the principles they found hard to accept
(Can you imagine asking David Cameron to resolve a theological dispute today?)

The five statements are much less well known than the official response
Known as the Canons of Dordt, after the town where a synod met to draw up the response

The fundamental questions were,
– Can everyone be saved? The official answer was, no.
– How much freedom do we have to decide our own salvation? The official answer was, none whatsoever.

It was a hardline Calvinist response
It was based on Calvin’s own doctrines of election and predestination, but stated in a dogmatic way that Calvin would never have adopted

Calvin’s doctrines of election and predestination were meant to reassure people
He wanted Christians to be able to believe they were really saved and could never be lost

It was the generation that came after him who chose to emphasise the other side
That other people, probably the majority, were lost and could never be saved

This dispute was exactly like most of the other disputes in church history
It stems from trying to give definitive answers to unanswerable questions
– Why doesn’t everyone respond to the gospel?
– Why do some people fall away? Why doesn’t everyone who becomes a Christian, remain a Christian until the end?

It’s convenient to say, some people aren’t meant to be saved

I said our theme this morning was the sense of belonging: And so it is
The doctrine of justification concerns the way we can be brought back into a state of harmonious belonging with God – and each other

People in the past often used theological disputes to create a spurious sense of belonging
When a church splits it drives some people away
But those who are left are drawn closer together

You choose to belong with the people you agree with
You drive out the people you don’t agree with, by telling them they’re wrong

We don’t have as many of those arguments today
Partly, it’s a matter of pragmatism
The circumstances of our own time are bringing us closer together
There are fewer and fewer of us
We can’t afford to live under separate roofs any more

We used to be Presbyterians, and Presbyterians used to be Calvinists
Yet most of our local ecumenical partnerships are with Methodists
Methodists are Arminians – they’re supposed to be our opposites
Yet we manage to worship together without falling out

If this is a sign of tolerance, it’s good
If this is a symptom of ignorance, it’s not
My own suspicion is, we don’t argue because we’re no longer familiar with the issues
We haven’t agreed to disagree – we’ve just forgotten what we were fighting about

I’m not suggesting we revive those conflicts
The problem with the old disputes was, that people got bogged down
They dug trenches
They simplified their theology, to make it easier to defend
They wrote confessions and catechisms stating what they believed
And then they refused to change them

Abraham was justified by faith
How did Abraham demonstrate his faith?
He did it by setting out, when God commanded him
He left behind the things he knew, and the people he’d lived with

When he obeyed the call of God and let his faith be tested, Abraham learned much more about what belonging really means
If we follow the call of God, we’ll discover that real belonging isn’t an attachment to a particular place or a familiar way of being
It’s not defending a particular theology against all comers

Real belonging is confessing our common humanity
Real belonging is confessing the uncertainties at the heart of every genuine faith
Real belonging is confessing we don’t feel worthy
Yet knowing, with others, we belong to Jesus, because he has called us to follow him

My contribution to the daily contemplations offered by ministers of Heaton Churches Together during Lent

Monday 17 March

Scripture Rom 5.1-11

Thought

This week’s theme is sacrifice. There is always the danger we think more often in these weeks of our sacrifice than Christ’s. Jesus hung on the cross, we give up biscuits: God’s offering of his Son in return for our own promised faith seems an over-hopeful gamble. Our track record speaks for itself: we have let down our Father again and again. But God’s faith in humanity was rewarded, because there was one human being who entirely merited his trust: Jesus Christ, ever obedient, ever loving, ever faithful; our Saviour, who gave up much more than custard creams to be with us.

Prayer

Lord as we reflect on sacrifice this week, awaken us to the knowledge that your great gift in this world is hope: the hope that enables us to rejoice in suffering when we suffer for your sake, in the body of Christ, for love of others.

Tuesday 18 March

Scripture John 4.5-42

Thought

This incident involves Jesus’ acceptance of a woman from a people the Jews regarded as aliens and heretics. The Samaritans, whose temple was at Gerizim, were said to be descendants of settlers introduced by the Assyrians – religious imposters, enemies of the true Jewish people.

Jesus sets this enmity aside. He has only one question for those who seek to follow him: not, ‘who are you?’ but, ‘who do you say that I am?’ This episode is an important sign of the reconfiguration of the idea of the people of God from physical Israel (the people of a land), to spiritual Israel (a people of faith). It challenges us to think about how easily our churches still divide on historical, ethnic and territorial lines.

Prayer

Lord when the living waters flow, man-made obstacles and barriers are swept aside. Teach us to see that your love is ours in its entirety, given to be shared with all in all its fullness and not to be divided up and parcelled out to others who pass our tests.

Wednesday 19 March

Scripture Isa 7.10-14

Thought

Isaiah seems here to have set a clever trap for Ahaz. Ahaz bargained for Assyria’s military assistance against his neighbours; Assyria’s price was the contents of the treasuries of Ahaz’s palace and the Temple. In the long run, his politicking resulted in the reduction of Judah to an Assyrian vassal state.

Ahaz cites exactly the same text Jesus used later in the wilderness to resist the second of Satan’s temptations: ‘You must not put the Lord your God to the test’ (Deu 6.16). So far, so good; but what is Ahaz really trying to do? He is seeking an excuse to ignore Isaiah. He uses the words of the Law to silence the prophet.

When faced with conflicting interpretations of Scripture, the correct one will usually be the least convenient one and the one most troubling to our customary understanding of the gospel.

Prayer

Lord we seek always to know more of your Word; but preserve in each of us a heart open to the Spirit. Deliver us from the pride of human knowledge, and do not let us make what we think we know a barrier to the Spirit’s voice.

Thursday 20 March

Scripture Psa 45

Thought

This Royal psalm is unique in depicting a royal wedding, and it is also unique in imputing divine qualities to the king. Other Ancient Near Eastern monarchs were worshipped as gods by their subjects. Such royal worship was anathema to Israel, which made this psalm a difficult one for later commentators. Jewish commentators gave it a messianic interpretation; Christians a christological one. This debate could grow heated, even violent; which raises the question, how do we as Christians today negotiate understandings of the texts, traditions and physical places we share with Judaism and Islam?

Prayer

Lord, we hear your voice with imperfect ears and imperfect understanding. Teach us to listen in humbleness for your voice speaking in others, and let our first sacrifice this Easter be our temptation to be always right about everything.

Friday 21 March

Scripture Psa 40.5-10

Thought

In many psalms, solitary voices speak to God about their own situation. The miry pit and slimy clay in the psalm’s opening verses refer, Christians assume, to the state of sin and torments of conscience; but in the original context they probably refer to physical illness.

Sacrifices were were expected from those who had been healed of disease. The psalmist says such sacrifices are ‘not required’. Perhaps this points to the eclipse of the Temple by the advent of the living Son; perhaps however it simply means the speaker wants to express his gratitude to God for his recovery by offering something more than the customary sacrifice.

The prophetic verse 7, Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me, is problematic; what the Hebrew means is unclear. The Letter to the Hebrews cites it as actual words of Christ. As Christians, singers of a new song, we may want to interpret it as meaning, All of Scripture now points to Christ. This is dangerous: if this is what we believe, when we read the Old Testament we will be looking only for verses we recognise from the New. It is not a rewarding approach.

Prayer

Lord, the gospel brings sight to the blind and liberty to the captives. We rejoice in that light and liberty; don’t let us imprison ourselves again in what is comfortable and familiar. Give us the gifts of openness and willingness to hear and learn from others; give us humility.

Saturday 22 March

Scripture Heb 10.4-10

Thought

The final reading this week is the culmination of a series of passages which can be taken to argue for the futility of the sacrifices of Jewish tradition when compared to the perfect sacrifice of Christ. The old things are gone: Immanuel has come and his throne is forever. We have been sanctified, today’s reading tells us, once for all.

So then, what is Lent all about? Why make the effort to discipline ourselves? And why re-live the events of Holy Week year by year? Simply because although the price is paid, to seize on the meaning of the work of Christ for ourselves, we have to continually re-imagine and re-experience what others felt and saw and heard.

Salvation in Christ is as real and inescapable as gravity; we know it’s there when we lie in bed in the morning. But to really experience it, we have to move – we have to act. Then we discover that the work of Christ has not removed the reality of suffering from the world, and the daily need for personal sacrifice; but in Christ, these things are no longer what they were. Futility is gone; the spirit of life is here; all things are made new.

Prayer

Lord teach us to live each day as people dead to sin but alive in the Spirit; people dead to self but alive in Christ; people who thirst no more, but through whom your love for others can flow.

 

Sunday 9 March 2014

Posted: March 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

Rom 5.12-19 Mat 4.1-11

Today, our theme is temptation
Jesus is tempted in the wilderness straight after his baptism, and before he begins his ministry
The temptation in the wilderness is key to understanding how Christ accomplishes our salvation
It’s summed up in Heb 4.15:

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

You can easily see in how many ways the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness mirrors the temptation of Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden:

– Satan comes to Jesus when he is alone: just as Eve was alone
– Satan twists the word of Scripture to tempt Jesus: just as the serpent misrepresented God’s commandment
– Satan tries to get Jesus to climb out of his place, not waiting for God’s unfolding will: just as the serpent tells Eve that she and Adam can be like gods

But Jesus refutes Satan by asserting the correct reading of Scripture
Jesus therefore situates his conduct and his own moral decisions in obedience to the Word of God revealed in Scripture

What these parallels show us is that Jesus goes through everything we go through, but he gets it right, where we got it wrong

The parallels between the temptation of Jesus and earlier temptations of God’s people go on throughout the Old Testament

Jesus is led into the wilderness because that is where God has tested his people in the past
He was already in the wilderness, because that’s where John was baptising the people
But the Spirit leads Jesus further, to somewhere very few people go
He stays there for forty days and nights

From St Augustine onwards, commentators on the Scriptures have pointed out that forty is an important number:
It’s linked with hardship, testing, punishment and repentance
But also with deliverance and renewal
– The rains fell for forty days and nights in the time of Noah
– Moses was forty years old when God appeared to him in the burning bush (that’s what Stephen says in Acts)
– The Israelites’ spies spent forty days in the Promised Land;
– and then, because the Israelites feared to go in to conquer the land, God condemned them to wander in the wilderness for forty years
– God gave the prophet Elijah a miraculous meal that strengthened him for the forty-day journey to Mount Horeb

So whenever we hear that something lasted forty days, or forty years, we know that period has been ordained by God
It’s a time when something important will occur – usually something decisive

The most important parallel is between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and the story of how Moses received the Law on Mount Horeb
– Moses fasted on the mountain for forty days and nights before he received the Law

The Book of Deuteronomy makes it clear that Moses’ forty-day fast on the mountain corresponds to the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness
The fasting of Moses is a work of atonement for the whole people

The temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness correspond to the temptations the people of Israel faced:
Hunger, the temptation to doubt God and put him to the test, and idolatry

Firstly, hunger Exodus 16:3: the people complain to Moses and say, “you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Secondly, the temptation to put God to the test: the people complain of being thirsty, and Moses tells them, it’s not me you’re putting to the test: it’s God

Thirdly, idolatry: because while Moses is fasting on the mountain and speaking with God, the people are melting down the jewellery they took from the Egyptians to make a golden calf

Jesus is tempted as we are, yet without sin
On his own, in the wilderness, he faces the same temptations the Israelites did, and he conquers them
He conquers the devil, the source of temptation, through the power of the word of God

Who is this Satan who tempts Jesus?
What is the ultimate source of temptation?
That is a difficult question

Jesus confronts various demons during his ministry on earth
They always seem to know exactly who he is
They know they are finally in his power and will suffer the fate he commands
They are frankly terrified of Jesus

Yet here is Satan, the boss of them all
Chatting companionably with Jesus
Offering to do favours for Jesus
Apparently with at least some hope that Jesus will betray himself
A hope at odds with everything we think we know of Jesus – that he is the incarnation of the perfectly good and all-powerful God
So in theory it’s not a real competition

Maybe this Satan isn’t a real character
Maybe this is just a way of dramatising the questions Jesus entertains about his identity and his mission

It’s similar to the way the Spirit is represented in this episode
The text says, ‘Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’
Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness
Is the Spirit something outside Jesus?
No. The Spirit is within
Which also has something to say about our own experience of temptation

Where does the devil appear from?
Does Jesus meet him by chance, just wandering around?
No: Jesus brings the devil with him

To give you another example: the Desert Fathers of the early church went into the wilderness of Sinai to struggle with demons, inspired by Jesus
Did the demons live in the wilderness?
No: they brought the demons with them

The demons weren’t evil little creatures with hoofs and horns and tails
They were simply temptations: distracting thoughts drawing the mind away from God
The demons they faced in the wilderness were the same ones they faced in the city
What they wanted to do in the desert was to isolate those demons
And face them without distractions

Jesus is ‘tempted as we are, yet without sin’
There’s usually nothing special about the things that tempt us
Adam and Eve were tempted by the fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
What was special about that tree?
I would suggest, nothing at all
Only that God had commanded them not to eat from it

Once they had eaten the fruit, they knew the difference between good and evil
Because they knew that by eating it, they had defied God’s commandment
They now knew how thin the line is between good and evil
They knew now they were naked and defenceless against temptation
They had indeed become like gods: burdened with the supernatural knowledge that evil is possible, and can be made real and potent by even very small human acts

Jesus was tempted as we are, yet without sin
I can’t answer the question, was Jesus capable of sin?
All I can say with certainty is, his situation as the Messiah was full of temptations
The temptation to rely on his on powers instead of placing his faith in God
The temptation to assert his own immunity from suffering
The temptation to be like the prodigal son, and claim his inheritance before the appointed time

For Jesus to have yielded to any of these temptations would have meant the defeat of his messianic ministry
His victory over the voice of temptation in the desert was the first sign of hope for us all
His refusal to yield and the way he defended himself by always turning to God’s word gives us a model for dealing with our own temptations

Sunday 2 March 2014

Posted: March 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

Mat 17.1-9  2Co 3.12-4.6

The Hebrew Scriptures are full of images of the final vindication of Israel
The salvation of God’s people; their triumph over all their enemies

The great books of prophecy are full of images of the Spirit of God descending on his holy mountain
Images of the end of time when the nations will acknowledge Israel’s God and bring their tribute from every corner of the world

But in the Gospels, when the glory of the Lord shone on the mountain, it wasn’t like that
It wasn’t in Jerusalem; it wasn’t on Mount Zion
It was on a nameless mountain in the middle of nowhere

The eyes of the nations were elsewhere that day
The glory of the Lord was only seen by three simple men
Too confused and frightened to take it all in

When it happened, it wasn’t the climax of history
it was only a stopping point on a journey towards Jerusalem
A journey that seemed to end with the Saviour’s death

Time and place do funny things in Scripture
Theologians say God acts in time, but he doesn’t exist in time
God created time, and he stands outside it

Some moments in Jesus life on earth are iconic
Moments so powerful, they stand for the whole of his life and work
Moments when the timelessness of God enters the human realm of time
The supernatural light shining from Jesus’ face and clothes is the symbol of this entry of timelessness into time

These moments are so tightly bound together, they transcend time and space
they are effectively the same moment
When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain top, the Father’s voice speaks
It repeats the words that were heard when John baptised him in the Jordan
When the Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

Mountains are important in the Law and the Prophets
Moses encountered the burning bush on a mountain top
He received the Law on a mountain top
Elijah’s sacrifice was consumed by fire from heaven on a mountain top
He heard the still, small voice on a mountain top

There are several mountains in Jesus’ story
Places where Jesus draws apart to seek the Father in prayer
Places where he experiences temptation, and suffering
Tabor, the Mount of Olives, Calvary

Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, on a mountain top
He offered him the kingdoms of the world, and Jesus refused

Here, in the Transfiguration, Peter is the voice of temptation
When you reach the top of a mountain, you feel you can’t go any further
That’s what Peter says
We’ve reached the top; we have everything we hoped for, right here
Why go any further?

In Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus wonders if he can drink the cup he is given
Christ was crucified at Golgotha, on the saddle of Mount Gareb
These scenes are all connected – because in all of them, God is revealed to us
They all, effectively, take place on the same mountain
A place where the passing incidents of this world fall away and the real cosmic drama is seen clearly

When Jesus breathes his last on Calvary, he thinks the Father is not with him
Yet we know at the same time the Father is well pleased
And that even though the onlookers can only see a broken human body, this is the moment of transfiguration
The moment when Jesus is glorified
Glorified in a way that reaches out across time and space
That transfigures human experience and human hope

‘It’s good that we are here’
Peter speaks these words in confusion, even in panic
But he speaks the truth

Because the work is not complete without witnesses
Witnesses not afraid to admit they were confused, frightened, tempted to draw back
But witnesses who spoke out in the end

Witnesses who wanted to heal the blindness imposed by the god of this world
Witnesses like Peter, and James, and John, and Paul
Witnesses who sacrificed everything to share with others the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ