“It was just an ordinary day…”

escape-the-ordinary.jpg

It was Richard Dawkins, of all people, who alerted me to an important subtext of Luke’s Gospel.  It’s a a paragraph in his book bearing the marvellous title: Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder.

It’s those last three titular words which struck me. Here’s Dawkins:  “There is an anaesthetic of familiarity, a sedative of ordinariness which dulls the senses and hides the wonder of existence. For those of us not gifted in poetry, it is at least worth while from time to time making an effort to shake off the anaesthetic. What is the best way of countering the sluggish habitutation brought about by our gradual crawl from babyhood? We can’t actually fly to another planet. But we can recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways.”

The “unfamiliar ways” in which Luke saw the world was a place shot through with the colour and magic of the presence of God. “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” (2 Chr 16:9)

God is watching for those who are watching for him.

Because of this, it’s important to read the story of the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20 as a parable on the theme of how God invades lives and changes them forever. Time and again, Luke tells of ordinary people going about their business whose lives are changed forever by an encounter with God: Zechariah the workaday priest, putting in his shift at the temple; Gailean fishermen working on their nets; Matthew at his tax booth. The list seems endless.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them…”

We live at the very edge of wonder. Jodi Picoult wrote, in Handle with Care: “It never failed to amaze me how the most ordinary day could be catapulted into the extraordinary in the blink of an eye.”

And that’s Luke’s point: God created you not as an ordinary personality, but eminent, peculiar, and with a special assignment. And the first part of that assignment is a readiness for God to move.

Luke intends the readers to see the shepherds as representative of believers who are ready to listen; and humble enough to recognise the signs that God gives and to act on them. In the event, the “sign” seems quite low-key: “This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ but their obedience was not.

The point is not that you are invited but that you respond to the invitation.

“And the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified…. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ “

The invitation is to move past the fear of the unknown into peace and favour. How do you do it? Through obedience. “The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ 16 So they hurried off and found…” The business of hurrying is a vital step in responding to God!

The next step was witness: “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child….”    

And afterwards, they return to their “normal lives.” Life has to go on after all. Bills have to be paid, and normal service has to be resumed.

But there is a difference that lasts forever.  “The shepherds returned…” Yes, of course they did. Where else would they go? But they were not the same men who had once been terrified.  They returned ” glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.”

What does it mean to where we live? It means that the ordinary is the place of the divine, where common sense meets mystery, and where logic “kisses the cheek of the inexplicable” (Tony Hendra).

Let’s  recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways.“For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”

It could be you. It might be today.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What you Ship & What you Receive…

Image result for receiving

‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Luke 6:41)

So often we read these familiar sayings of Jesus and forget how funny they are.  We nod seriously and completely miss the howl of laughter that would have attended their first telling. In the verse “The common people heard him gladly,” that last word can be translated “joyfully.”  It means “with laughter.” Jesus had an unforgettable way of getting people’s attention to the truth. And laughter always sneaks up unawares.

Until you realise that the joke is on you.

The point is that speck and plank are from the same original word, meaning they are of the same substance. In other words, Jesus was saying, the reason some people are so adept at finding fault in the lives of others is because they are so familiar with it themselves. They can spot certain things in another person’s life because they are guilty of the same sin—in probably a greater capacity.

F.W.Robertson said “Each man unerringly detects in another the vice with which he is most familiar.”

So watch yourself if you find yourself quick to fault-find or nitpick. Kent Hughes said, “We find it so easy to turn a microscope on another person’s sin, but we look at ours through the wrong end of a telescope. We easily spot a speck of phoniness in another, because we have a logjam of it in our own lives. Wrath toward the speck in someone else’s life may come from the suppressed guilt over the same massive sin in our own lives.”

So, do you have something in your eye?

I was once fast-forwarded in a crowded A & E Ward because I told the receptionist I had glass in my eye. I was hurried past the crowds with a flock of worried nurses in attendance, only for the doctor to say, finally, “I can’t see any glass.” “No, no, I said grass, not glass.”

It was an honest mistake.

I mean to say: even a bit of grass is painful. Even -you might say- a speck.

So how do you get it out? Well, you don’t use your finger, as I did. You gently flush it out with clean water and there’s no problem.

Sometimes things come into our lives like a speck into the eye, and everything is uncomfortable and difficult until that tiny issue is flushed out.  In Ephesians 5, there is a beautiful description of how Christ deals with the “specks” in His church:

“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

He flushes our lives with the living water, with the Holy Spirit, lovingly, tenderly, creating holiness and beauty.

And this also means we can trust the Holy Spirit to flush out other people’s specks too. God has a way of sorting people out so we don’t have to.

Sometimes when people respond to God with all their hearts they find themselves weeping. People even say “I don’t know why I am crying so much.”

But maybe it’s the Holy Spirit is getting the specks out.

So Jesus’ call to self-awareness works on three different levels. It forces you to think about yourself honestly, and thereby summons you to stand before God humbly. And last, it encourages you to deal with one another gently.

Before you “correct” anyone about anything, pray for them for one day.  Don’t just pray for a minute (“God open their eyes so they can see they are a big fat liar. Bless them Lord with revelation, Amen”) and then compile your list. Spend a good 24 hours of praying for them the way you would want someone to pray for you. If it’s serious, then fast. By the time you’re done, everything will have changed.

And most of the change will be inside you.

The thing is that judging other people is almost always counterproductive. Trying to change someone or straighten them out seems to have the opposite effect and eventually backfires.

When can we judge? Only when there is no plank in our own eyes. Planks make us blind.  Offence makes us blind. It would be the height of arrogance to claim we are totally plank-free.

Perhaps there are times to judge. I just don’t think it happens as much as we tend to think it does. And we so easily mask our own motives.

I know this because I’ve been on both sides of the specks and the planks. Hurting people, and being hurt too.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there will always be mistakes in my judgements, (my decisions about people, that is) and yet I can choose to believe the best, give the benefit of the doubt, err on the side of tolerance and charity – and do much less harm that way.

The bottom line is that sometimes we who are nitpicking the sins of others are guilty of worse ourselves. But if we know anything of being forgiven by God, then we will be forgiving people. Forgiven people will be forgiving people.

And we are called to live according to the grace we have received.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“They stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” (Luke 24)

luke 24.jpg

 

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”

The Gospel finishes as it began, in the Temple, ready for the new beginning in the book of Acts which will tell the story of the journey of the Gospel from Jewish sect to world religion and from Jerusalem to Rome.

Luke gives a very short account of the Ascension here, but does so with a quiet solemnity and a simplicity which somehow recalls both the offering of bread and wine at the Last Supper, and the breaking and giving of bread to the hungry Five Thousand. This time, however, it is the community of believers that is being blessed and given, and it is Jesus who is being lifted up.

The place of ascension is given as Bethany, near Jerusalem, adjoining to the mount of Olives. This recalls the agony of Gethsemane, of course, and “Bethany” itself means “the house of sorrow.” The time of being lifted up in sorrow and crucifixion has given way to being lifted up in honour and triumph. And it is upon the mount of Olives which was long prophesied to be a location of ultimate division and judgement. Zechariah 14:4 reads: “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south…” The context, once more, is of Jerusalem in turmoil and under judgement.

And Jesus lifts up his hands, as the high priest did when he blessed the people; (Leviticus 9:22). He blesses as one having authority, as Jacob blessed his sons. The apostles were now as the representatives of the twelve tribes, so that in blessing them he blessed all his spiritual Israel, and put his Father’s name upon them. Christ was now sending his apostles to preach his gospel to the world, and he gives them his blessing, not for themselves only, but to be conferred in his name upon all that should believe on him through their word; for in him all the families of the earth were to be blessed.

The narrative ends with a praise-filled waiting, constantly seeking God at the Temple, just as Jesus had done when in Jerusalem.

Matthew Henry has a delightful conclusion to his commentary on Luke. It breathes an old serenity and robust holiness that is always fresh, relevant and appropriate. Let’s close with that as our final reflection.

“While we are waiting for God’s promises we must go forth to meet them with our praises. Praising and blessing God is work that is never out of season: and nothing better prepares the mind for the receiving of the Holy Ghost than holy joy and praise. Fears are silenced, sorrows sweetened and allayed, and hopes kept up. The amen that concludes seems to be added by the church and every believer to the reading of the gospel, signifying an assent to the truths of the gospel, and a hearty concurrence with all the disciples of Christ in praising and blessing God. Amen. Let him be continually praised and blessed.”

Amen, let it be so!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“He opened their minds so that they could understand” (Luke 24)

jesus among them.jpg

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’

37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?  39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’

40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

44 He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ ” 

“The way to do research (according to Celia Green) is to attack the facts at the point of greatest astonishment.” There is no doubt but that Luke set out to research the facts about Jesus the Christ and the community that bore his name in just that way. As he said at the beginning of this account: “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning.”  And here we arrive, perhaps, at “the point of greatest astonishment.” He documents the responses to the risen Christ with a cool objectivity: “They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.” Their sheer surprise and fear are mixed with disbelief. Jesus addresses both responses together:  “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?” 

Jesus addresses those issues with a prosaic matter-of-factness, pointing to the evidence of their senses, seeing , hearing, touching, and to Jesus himself tasting their food. He offers the simplest of proofs that he is indeed alive in a way that they can comprehend. And now, at last, another component is mentioned -their joy and amazement. It’s really him! The worst possible case scenario (the death of their beloved leader) has given way to the best, and the emotions spill out, like a salt sellar where the top has come loose and the entire contents spill  out on to your chips. It’s all too much.

And Jesus steadies them, stirring not their emotions but their intellects:  “This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”  And then this: “He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” On one level, this is just the disciples at Jerusalem playing catch-up with the disicples at Emmaus. God’s purposes can be known through the Scriptures. We have only to read them with him, so to speak, or rather, in the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit. “This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.  I am going to send you what my Father has promised, but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high….”

Look at those intertwining components of revelation: Scripture, Jesus the Messiah, and the communal call to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth in the power of the Spirit.

The promise of being clothed with power from on high (in verse 49) immediately recalls Gabriel’s explanation to Mary regarding her virginal conception in Luke 1:35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Thus, the Holy Spirit which empowered the impossible, a virgin conceiving God’s Son, will empower the community to do what is otherwise impossible, testifying to God’s salvation flowing to all nations in the name of God’s Son.

At the same time, this promise anticipates the incredible events and proclamation empowered by the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-42), as well as the Spirit coming upon Gentiles to demonstrate how God’s salvation involves all nations (Acts 10:1-11:18).

This is the revelation-anointing. It comes upon the dispirited and confused followers of Jesus and shows them, through the scriptures, the meaning and purposes of God. It anchors them upon the company of Jesus, through the breaking of bread, to see him as he really is. It prompts them into obedience. It empowers them for witness. And our faith becomes our eyes.

And we see for real.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Walking in a new world (Luke 24)

emmaus.png

 

Do you remember the total strangeness of a first day? First day at school, or college. First day at a new job. First day after the first baby has arrived. Everything is odd and takes some getting used to. Everything is indefinably different.

When Luke tells the story of the first day after Jesus rose from the dead (in Chapter 24), he does so with a kind of masterly simplicity and down-to-earth detail. But you identify the strangeness straight away.

He tells of a couple of guys walking home from Jerusalem. A seven-mile country walk back to their village. They are sad for all that has happened. They had hoped for great deeds from Jesus and instead they had witnessed a kangaroo court and a squalid execution. They were desperately sad. Someone walks along side and joins the conversation. Why are you so sad? What are you talking about?

Why don’t they recognise Jesus? Are their eyes full of tears? Are they just staring at the ground?

Jesus comes as an unknown traveller. He shares their conversation without revealing himself. Instead, he begins to reveal the Hebrew Bible to them. His thesis is: Didn’t you know that the messiah had to suffer? And he tracks through the Bible -our Old Testament- pointing to what it speaks about Christ.

I tried this out at church once: “How would you speak about Jesus just using the Old Testament?” They were brilliant -obviously motivated by the large bag of chocolate eggs by my side. Jesus the lamb, the Passover Lamb, the Exodus, priest, the High Priest, the “one like Moses”, “His name shall be called wonderful…”, he “bore our sin”,  “I know my redeemer lives,” the son of David… We settled down to the familiar three-fold division, that Jesus is PROPHET, PRIEST and KING.

But not only so:

He is the Prophet who speaks the Word of God,  but he is also the Word itself.

He is the King but also the kingdom.

He is the priest, but also the sacrifice.

So perhaps Jesus spoke of some of these things. He didn’t reveal himself just then, but he revealed the Scriptures instead and allowed the words to explain things. Later, when the traveller and the walkers shared a meal, he broke bread and offered it to them and then they recognised Jesus. He “was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

How do you respond  to Easter Sunday, to the first day in a new world? Luke realises that the concept of resurrection is very very strange. It seems much more reasonable to keep your head down, burdened by the many sorrows of life, and to fail to recognise the one who walks along side. Luke was writing to a new generation, I think, a generation who wouldn’t have seen Jesus in the flesh, so he offers them three ways of receiving resurrection truth.

The first is to recognise Jesus through the words of the Bible: let the word of God speak to you and challenge you. God is known through his word.

The second, according to this passage, is to recognise Jesus when you take the sacrament of bread and wine. Perhaps for those first guys something jogged their memory and opened their eyes. Perhaps it was a very familiar gesture. But for us, something truly astonishing happens when in humility you take bread and wine and focus upon Jesus: on his death and resurrection.

The third “proof” of the resurrection comes right at the end of Luke’s Gospel and links in to the book of Acts. It is the coming and abiding of the Holy Spirit.

God in us. The Apostle John spoke in great detail (John 15-17) of the power and impact of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately it is God’s Spirit in my spirit, teaching me of Christ and empowering me to live in Christ’s way. Nothing less than that.

And that is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a whole new world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“It was as if God were saying: The worst has happened, and now the best can begin.” (Easter Reflection)

Image result for empty tomb women modern art

 “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”’ Then they remembered his words.”

C.S. Lewis  famously said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” On that first Easter morning, the son had risen and everything changed in the light of that event.

It was as if God were saying: The worst has happened, and now the best can begin.

The narrative starts with simple devotion, with spices lovingly prepared and offered to honour a beloved Master, horribly tortured and killed before their eyes. It’s dawn -a symbolic moment for the beginning of something brand new. They find the stone rolled away, but do not find the body, but their puzzlement is quickly overwhelmed with wonder at an angelic encounter. Just as his birth is announced with angels, so is his resurrection, and the end of the gospel parallels its beginning.

The angels offer something of a mild rebuke: ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?” This is the key point. The resurrection should not have been a total surprise because Jesus had repeatedly taught them about it. And “Then they remembered his words.”

There’s a subtle shift in Luke’s text from “He” to “They.” “He” is still central, of course -uniquely pivotal- but now Christ forms the starting point for the actions of others, like the hub of a bicycle wheel from which every spoke is connected, and is held in place.

And “They” in the first eight verses is constituted by a group of faithful women, who form the first witnesses of the resurrection. That’s a significant point for the new Community. “In Him there is neither … male nor female.” (Gal 3:28)

This final chapter of Luke’s gospel forms a transition -a bridge-from the story of Jesus to the story of Jesus’ People in the book of Acts, and the worldwide spread of the good news in the power of the Holy Spirit. But, in order to make the bridge secure, both bases have to be firmly anchored. It is Luke’s task in this chapter to provide both review and preview events,  unifying the story rather than permitting it to disintegrate into two stories. The review is right here: “Then they remembered his words.” The words of Jesus are the explanation for the cross and empty tomb

The angels’ words stressed the fact that Jesus was alive. It was inappropriate to look for a living person in a tomb (cf Acts 2:24). They then recalled Jesus’ prophecy that he would rise after three days (Luke 9:22; Luke 9:43-45; Luke 18:31-33). But even at the time they hadn’t really absorbed the idea (Luke 18:34; 24:16).

The women now remembered the predictions they had heard but had not understood. The Resurrection had begun to clarify many things that Jesus had previously taught His disciples (cf Acts 11:16). The women then returned to the Eleven and the other disciples with their news. The angels had been witnesses of the Resurrection to the women, and now the women were witnesses of it to the rest of the disciples. They in turn would be witnesses of it to the ends of the earth ( Acts 1:8).

And Christian mission here starts right here.

Pic by He Qi

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Jesus in the Tomb

Image result for jesus buried modern art

 

 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” (Luke 23:50-56)

If Joseph had not asked for the body, it would have been thrown in the city dump (the valley of Hinnom) as that of a common criminal.  That’s the grim reality of Paul’s phrase, “He made himself nothing.”

But the close of Luke’s account seems to parallel its opening chapter, with the reminder of simple, godly devotion within the family of Israel. Joseph of Arimathea is a Sanhedrin member who did not agree with Jesus’ conviction by the official council and he as “a good and upright man,” one who “was waiting for the kingdom of God.”  Devout figures surround Jesus both at his birth and at his death.

Those who are righteous and seek God respond to Jesus and look forward to what he will bring. As the bumper sticker has it: “Wise men still seek him.”

And so Joseph’s kindness fulfils Deuteronomy 21:22-23: Jesus is not “buried” among thieves in dishonour.

The “Day of Preparation” is Friday, and that meant that Sabbath was close. The women who “watched” as Jesus died also watch as he is buried, checking the spot, planning on a final act of devotion in anointing his body when Sabbath is done.

There’s such an air of quiet, gracious kindness both from Joseph and from this group of faithful followers, after the storm has broken upon them.

Jesus has been laid to rest in honour. And that’s the end of it.

Or not.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment