Archive for April, 2017

The LORD is God, and he has given us light

My father was a joiner for more than forty years
One day he and his mate got a call to go and have a look at the boardroom table
The surface was dull and sticky; it was ugly to look at and horrible to touch
The manager thought they would have to buy a new one – which would have cost thousands

My father and his mate knew better: they gave it a good rub down with white spirit
Then they polished it up with a bit of good quality oil-based polish, and it came up as good as new

What was the problem? A build-up of silicon polish
How had it developed? The cleaners had been giving the table a good spray with Pledge and a quick rub with a duster, every night for years – it was an automatic part of their routine
The problem, in other words, was too much polish – not enough elbow grease

The fact is, every time we read Scripture, we leave a trace
Something that is still there when we next go back to it – a residue of of understanding

The use we make of the Bible in church can foster this
We read the same passages again and again, at the same times
We see what we want to see: what we are used to seeing

If we are lazy readers, eventually we won’t be able to see the text at all – just those sticky layers
We’ll find that our Bible has somehow become very dull – something we don’t want to touch
What we have to do then, is find ways to is strip away all those layers of familiarity and get to grips with the words God has given us

I think today’s gospel reading is a case in point:
We read it as a sort of cameo – an isolated incident. It’s how we are used to reading it
Jesus enters Jerusalem, and receives the acclamation of the crowd. The end. Wish I’d been there.

Let me pick out one detail that jars with this picture
That word hosannah – we assume it means hurrah!

It’s hard to know what this word means, because this is the only episode where it appears
It’s a Greek word formed from two Hebrew words:
yasha (defend, deliver, help preserve) and na (I pray or beseech)
So it’s not hard to imagine that the crowds are calling, Jesus, I pray you, help us! Jesus, I pray you, deliver us!

Let me make a connection with what happens next
Jesus does not go home for his tea; Jesus is not invited to attend a civic reception to meet important people and drink sherry
Jesus carries on into the temple, and throws out everyone who is buying or selling, the money-changers and the sellers of doves

The authorities are indignant and reproach him
Because they feel threatened by the crowd, who are shouting: Jesus, I pray you, help us! Jesus, I pray you, deliver us!

They feel threatened, because they are the ones the crowd wants Jesus to deliver them from
They are the dead hand of institutional religion the temple has come to represent
They are the willing pawns of the Romans, who are the actual rulers of the Jewish people

Jesus alludes to the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly in this passage
He doesn’t do it to show what a good memory he has
He does it to show that Scripture is being fulfilled that day
He does it to show that the kingdom of God is at hand

He can afford to do it, because he knows he is surrounded by people who read their Bibles properly – people who will understand
People who will see that the one who brings Scripture to life before their eyes, is the Living Word of salvation

9 April 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

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A matter of life and death

Posted: April 4, 2017 in Uncategorized

Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die

Is the Easter story a love story or a horror show?
It has powerful elements of fear and horror
The darkness, the looming threat outside, the betrayal
The vulnerability of the kneeling man in the garden
The violent arrest and then the mad rushing from one interrogation to another
The mockery, the torture, and finally the cross, the nails, the spear
The broken body taken down and laid in the tomb

But the whole story is instigated, inspired and driven by love
And what Paul tells us in Romans 8, is that love drives out fear
God’s love confronts our fear, our fear of that we have made of ourselves, and drives it out by bringing us back to him

Nevertheless, the elements of horror in the gospel story are among the things that do most to convince us of its truth
They let us know, the gospel writer is not telling us this story just to keep us happy
It is not escapism

There is probably in all our minds a conviction that most love stories are a form of escapist entertainment
The struggling heroine, trapped in a dead end job with no hope of pursuing her dreams, is rescued by a glamorous hero who makes all things possible
These things do not happen in real life – certainly not with the monotonous regularity they seem to happen in romantic fiction
These stories can’t be true – so we do not take them seriously

Horror fans should not look down their noses at fans of romance
Most horror stories are escapist entertainment too
Even though in theory the idea is to shock the reader or the viewer, the things that happen are essentially the things the audience want to happen
Just like fans of Mills and Boone, horror fans get what they pay for

But the greatest stories are the ones that transcend the limits of their genres
They are stories that speak to their readers of deep truths about life and existence
Truths which even in the safe confines of a work of entertainment, cannot be denied, without creating a work which is hollow at its core

The great love stories are love stories that grapple with the facts of suffering and death
And the greatest horror stories are the ones that point to something revealed in the depths, that points us to the heights

By those definitions, the story of the cross is both the greatest horror story and the greatest love story of all
It reminds us of the fact of death which curtails all stories of human love
At the same time, it proclaims the fact of divine love which rewrites the ending of every story of human death

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones Ezekiel 37) , and the story of Lazarus (John 11), are among the most grotesque and macabre passages in the whole of Scripture
These two episodes, Ezekiel in the Old Testament, and Lazarus in the New, have something important in common – the way they bring death and life together
I think this short passage from Romans points us to ways of understanding them both

We had better be clear at the outset, about what we mean by ‘resurrection’

Stephen King wrote a story called “Pet Sematary” [sic]
It’s a story about a native Indian cemetery
Local people know you can bury your dead pets there, and they will be mysteriously restored to life
Except there’s something not quite right about them – they still seem ‘a little dead’

One day the main protagonist’s two-year-old son is run over and killed on the busy main road near their house
I think you can guess what the grief-stricken father does next
But not what the ending is – it’s even worse than you imagine

There are elements of horror in the story of Lazarus that perhaps we gloss over
Even though the teller of the story insists on just those elements

It starts with Jesus delaying his departure, to make quite sure that Lazarus is really dead
It continues when they are all assembled in front of the tomb, and Martha warns Jesus of the horrible stench that is going to overwhelm them when they open the tomb
It reaches its height when Lazarus steps from the tomb, with his winding cloths still around his head and body

Who has the power to make the dead walk?
Think of the legends of zombies we find in many parts of the world, which have inspired a whole genre of horror films
It’s not necessarily God; it’s not necessarily the Messiah, who brings the dead to life – it could be an evil wizard
Perhaps the kind of magician who gives a man his sight by smearing mud on his eyes

What kind of life has Lazarus been brought back to?
By what power? For what purpose?

I think there is in the minds of the authorities a suspicion that a power greater than death must inevitably be something worse than death
There is something more than malice in their desire to do away with Jesus – there is fear

The true and proper fear of God arises from the sense of the power and mystery of God
It is different from superstitious terror, because it includes faith in the love of God
The horror and terror that arises from a superstitious conception of God, without the sense of his love, is actually a sign of our distance from God

If there is anything truly horrific in this world, it is the unredeemed life
That is the point from which a true biblical understanding of ‘death’ and ‘life’ begins

We happily use paradoxes like ‘a living death’, and cliches like ‘a fate worse than death’
But we don’t think of our own lives in these terms
Whereas Paul and Ezkiel actually do

Ezekiel describes his shocking vision of finding himself in a valley full of human remains
Then he turns to the living people round about him and says, “This is you; you are the dead”
Paul means essentially the same thing, when he says, To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:6)

You might say, Paul is talking metaphorically
He’s talking about outlook and priorities:
Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. (Romans 8:5)
Here, Paul isn’t saying anything more than Jesus is, when he says in Matthew 6:21:
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This is true; but what Paul is trying to tell us, is that the life and death he speaks of are spiritual realities far more ‘real’ than anything doctors can measure or treat

Life in other words is not a matter of heartbeat or respiration or brain activity
Death is not something that happens when your heart stops beating

The line between life and death is the one drawn by the state of sin
A line which can only be erased by God’s act of grace
But which has been erased, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ

What about us? Are we alive or dead, by this reckoning?
Do we live according to the Spirit, or according to the flesh?
Have we been born again, from above, or are we still clinging on to the old life?

Jesus says, Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die (John 11.26)
If we are in Christ, the life we enjoy now is continuous with the eternal life we are promised
If we are in the flesh, our life is already a living death

2 April 2017, St George’s, High Heaton