Chapter 21

kalen-emsley-99659.jpg

Chapter 21

Significant andWonderful

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:15
John 2:1–12
Mark 1:21–28

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!


You can’t go many pages in the Gospels without encountering a miracle. Some of us find it easy and exciting to believe in miracles. Others of us find them highly problematic.

If you find it easy to believe in miracles, the Gospels are a treasure of inspiration. But you still have to deal with one big problem: the miracles in the Gospels easily stir hopes that are almost always dashed in people’s lives today. For example, in Matthew 9 you read about a little girl being raised from the dead, but since that time millions of faithful, praying parents have grieved lost children without a miraculous happy ending. Why not? In Matthew 14, you read about fish and bread being multiplied to feed the hungry, but since that day, how many millions of faithful, praying people have slowly starved, and no miracle came? Doesn’t the possibility of miracles only make our suffering worse when God could grant them but doesn’t? It’s all so much worse if accusatory people then blame the victim for not having enough faith.

If you are sceptical about miracles, you avoid these problems. But you have another problem, no less significant: if you’re not careful, you can be left with a reduced world, a disenchanted, mechanistic world where the impossible is always and forever impossible. You may judge the miracle stories in the Gospels as silly legends, childish make-believe, false advertising or deceitful propaganda. But in banishing what you regard as superstition, you may also banish meaning and hope. If you lock out miracles, you can easily lock yourself in – into a closed mechanistic system, a small box where God’s existence doesn’t seem to make much difference.

There is a third alternative, a response to the question of miracles that is open to both sceptics and believers in miracles alike. Instead of ‘Yes, miracles actually happened’, or ‘No, they didn’t really happen’, we could ask another question: What happens to us when we imagine miracles happening? In other words, perhaps the story of a miracle is intended to do more than inform us about an event that supposedly happened in the past, an event that if you were to believe it, might prove something else.

Perhaps a miracle story is meant to shake up our normal assumptions, inspire our imagination about the present and the future, and make it possible for us to see something we couldn’t see before. Perhaps the miracle that really counts isn’t one that happened to them back then, but one that could happen in us right now as we reflect upon the story.

Perhaps, by challenging us to consider impossible possibilities, these stories can stretch our imagination, and in so doing can empower us to play a catalytic role in cocreating new possibilities for the world of tomorrow. Doesn’t that sound rather . . . miraculous?

Consider Jesus’ first miracle in the Fourth Gospel. The story begins, ‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.’ Jesus’ mother notices that the wedding host has run out of wine and she nudges Jesus to do something about it. Jesus resists, but Mary doubts his resistance. She tells the servants to get ready to do whatever Jesus instructs.

Jesus points them to some nearby stone containers – six of them, used to hold water for ceremonial cleansing. These cleansings express the intention to live as ‘clean people’, in contrast to ‘unclean people’. The containers are huge – potentially holding twenty or thirty gallons each. But they are empty. ‘Fill them with water,’ Jesus says. So the servants get to work drawing 120–180 gallons of water and filling the huge containers. Jesus instructs them to draw out a sample to give to the banquet master. He takes a taste. He’s amazed! ‘You’ve saved the best wine until last!’ he says.

John says this was the first of the signs by which Jesus revealed his glory. That word signs is important. Signs point. They signify. They mean something. Often the word signs is linked with wonders – which make you wonder and astonish you with awe. So having warmed up our imagination by picturing a story about a far-away place in a long-ago time, let’s now apply our inspired imagination to our lives, our world, here and now. Let’s consider the significance of the sign. Let’s do some wondering.

In what ways are our lives – and our religions and our cultures – like a wedding banquet that is running out of wine? What are we running out of? What are the stone containers in our day – huge but empty vessels used for religious purposes? What would it mean for those empty containers to be filled – with wine? And why so much wine? Can you imagine what 180 gallons of wine would mean in a small Galilean village? What might that superabundance signify? What might it mean for Jesus to re-purpose containers used to separate the clean from the unclean? And what might it mean for God to save the best for last?

Questions like these show us a way of engaging with the miracle stories as signs and wonders, without reducing them to the level of ‘mere facts’ on the one hand or ‘mere superstition’ on the other. They stir us to imagine new ways of seeing, leading to new ways of acting, leading to new ways of being alive.

In Mark’s Gospel, the first miracle is very different. It happens in Capernaum, Jesus’ home base, in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. The people have gathered and Jesus is teaching with his trademark authority. Suddenly, a man ‘with an unclean spirit’ screams: ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’ Jesus tells the spirit to be quiet and leave the man, and the spirit shakes the man violently and leaves.

Today we would probably diagnose the man as being mentally or emotionally unwell, anxiety-ridden, maybe even paranoid. Instead of being possessed by a demon, we would understand him to be possessed by a chemical imbalance, a psychiatric disorder, a neurological malady or a powerful delirium. But even with our difference in diagnosing and understanding human behaviour, we can imagine how we would respond to seeing Jesus return this man to mental well-being with one impromptu therapy session lasting less than ten seconds!

Again, the story stimulates us to ask questions about our own lives, our own times. What unhealthy, polluting spirits are troubling us as individuals and as a people? What fears, false beliefs and emotional imbalances reside within us and distort our behaviour? What unclean or unhealthy thought patterns, value systems and ideologies inhabit, oppress and possess us as a community or culture? What in us feels threatened and intimidated by the presence of a supremely ‘clean’ or ‘holy’ spirit or presence, like the one in Jesus? In what way might this individual symbolise our whole society? In what ways might our society lose its health, its balance, its sanity, its ‘clean spirit’, to something unclean or unhealthy?

And what would it mean for faith in the power of God to liberate us from these unhealthy, imbalanced, self-destructive disorders? Dare we believe that we could be set free? Dare we trust that we could be restored to health? Dare we have faith that such a miracle could happen to us – today?

There is a time and place for arguments about whether this or that miracle story literally happened. But in this literary approach, we turn from arguments about history to conversations about meaning. We accept that miracle stories intentionally stand on the line between believable and dismissible. In so doing, they throw us off balance so that we see, think, imagine and feel in a new way.

After people met Jesus, they started telling wild, inspiring stories like these . . . stories full of gritty detail, profound meaning and audacious hope. They felt their emptiness being filled to overflowing. They watched as their lifelong obsession with clean and unclean was replaced with a superabundant, supercelebrative joy. They felt their anxiety and paranoia fade, and in their place faith and courage grew. They experienced their blindness ending, and they began to see everything in a new light. That was why these stories had to be told. And that’s why they have to be told today. You may or may not believe in literal miracles, but faith still works wonders.

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you felt you experienced a miracle, or when you prayed for a miracle that never came.

3. How do you respond to the literary approach that looks for meaning in miracle stories? Can you apply it to some other miracle stories?

4. For children: If you could have a magical power, what would it be, and why?

5. Activate: Keep these two miracle stories in mind throughout this week, and see if they bring new insights to situations you face.

6. Meditate: Hold in silence the image of an empty ceremonial stone container being filled with water that is transformed to wine. Hear the sound of water filling to the brim. See the water change in colour, and taste the change in flavour as it becomes wine. Hear the sound of people celebrating in the background. Sit with the words empty, full and transformed. See what prayer takes shape in your heart.

Chapter 20

path

Chapter 20

Join the Adventure

Isaiah 61:1–4
Luke 4:1–30; 5:1–11

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has
anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
2 Timothy 2:1–9


Never to be given a chance to succeed – that’s a tragedy. But in some ways it’s even worse to have your chance and not be ready for it. That’s why in almost every story of a great hero, there is an ordeal or a test that must be passed before the hero’s adventure can begin.

That was the case with Jesus. Before he could begin his public adventure, Jesus felt the Holy Spirit leading him away from the crowds, away from the cities and away from the fertile Jordan Valley, out into the solitude of the harsh, dry, barren Judean desert.

By saying Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days, Luke’s Gospel is inviting us to remember Moses who, before becoming the liberator of the Hebrew slaves, spent forty years in the wilderness, where he eventually encountered God in the burning bush. Luke’s Gospel is also inviting us to remember the story of the newly liberated Hebrew slaves who, after leaving Egypt, were tested for forty years in the wilderness before they were prepared to enter the promised land. Once again the Gospel writers present Jesus as mirroring the experience of his ancestral people.

Luke describes Jesus’ testing in the vivid language of an encounter with the devil. Some take this language literally. Others see the devil as a literary figure who developed over time among ancient storytellers to personify all that is dark, evil and violent in human nature and human culture.

‘Turn these stones into bread,’ the devil says in his first temptation. In other words, Who needs the character formation and self-control that come from spiritual disciplines like fasting? That’s a long, hard process. You can have it all, right now – public influence and private self-indulgence – if you just use your miraculous powers to acquire whatever you desire! In the second temptation, Jesus is offered the chance to get on the fast track to power by acknowledging that self-seeking power, not self-giving love, reigns supreme: ‘You can rule over all the kingdoms of the world – if you’ll simply worship me!’ In the third temptation, the devil tells him, ‘Prove yourself as God’s beloved child by throwing yourself off the temple!’ This seemingly suicidal move, with angelic intervention at the last moment before impact, would provide just the kind of public-relations spectacle that showmen love. But Jesus is not a showman, and he isn’t interested in shortcuts. Besides, he doesn’t need to prove he is God’s beloved child. He knows that already.

So he will not use his power for personal comfort and pleasure. He will refuse unscrupulous means to achieve just and peaceful ends. He will not reach for spectacle over substance. And so Jesus sets the course for the great work before him – not driven by a human lust for pleasure, power or prestige, but empowered by the Spirit. And of course, if we want to join Jesus in his great work, we must face our own inner demons and discover the same Spirit-empowerment.

He soon comes to his home town, Nazareth. Like any good Jewish man, he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. There is a time in the synagogue gathering where men can read a passage of Scripture and offer comment upon it. So on this day, Jesus stands and asks for the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls the scroll until he comes to the passage that speaks of the Spirit anointing someone to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.

By quoting these words, Jesus stirs the hopes of his people – hopes for the time Isaiah and other prophets had urged the people to wait for, pray for and prepare for. Then he sits – a teacher’s customary posture in those days. He offers this amazing commentary – notable for its brevity and even more for its astonishing claim: ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

If he had said, ‘One day this Scripture will be fulfilled,’ everyone would have felt it was a good, comforting sermon. If he had said, ‘This Scripture is already fulfilled in some ways, not yet in others,’ that would also have been interesting and acceptable. But either commentary would postpone until the future any need for real change in his hearers’ lives. For Jesus to say the promised time was here already, fulfilled, today . . . that was astonishing. That required deep rethinking and radical adjustment.

The same is true for us today.

Imagine if a prophet arose today in Panama, Sierra Leone or Sri Lanka. In an interview on the BBC or Al Jazeera he says, ‘Now is the time! It’s time to dismantle the military-industrial complex and reconcile with enemies! It’s time for CEOs to slash their mammoth salaries and give generous pay rises to all their lowest-paid employees! It’s time for criminals, militias, weapons factories and armies to turn in their bullets and guns so they can be melted down and recast as trumpets, swings and garden tools. It’s time to stop plundering the Earth for quick corporate profit and to start healing the Earth for long-term universal benefit. Don’t say “one day” or “tomorrow”. The time is today!’ Imagine how the talking heads would spin!

The Nazareth crowd is impressed that their home-town boy is so articulate and intelligent and bold. But Jesus won’t let them simply be impressed or appreciative for long. He quickly reminds them of two stories from the Scriptures, one involving a Sidonian widow in the time of Elijah and one involving a Syrian general in the time of Elisha. God bypassed many needy people of our religion and nation, Jesus says, to help those foreigners, those Gentiles, those outsiders. You can almost hear the snap as people are jolted by this unexpected turn.

Clearly, the good news proclaimed by the home-town prophet is for them as well as us, for all humankind and not just for our kind. Somehow, that seems disloyal to the Nazarenes. That seems like a betrayal of their unique and hard-won identity. In just a few minutes, the crowd quickly flips from proud to concerned to disturbed to furious. They are transformed by their fury from a congregation into a lynch mob, and they push Jesus out of the door and over to the edge of a cliff. They’re ready to execute this heretical traitor.

Again, imagine if a pope, a patriarch or a famous TV preacher today were to declare that God is just as devoted to Muslims, Hindus and atheists as to Christians. They might not be thrown off a cliff, but one can easily imagine tense brows and grave voices advocating for them to be thrown out of office or taken off the air!

No wonder Jesus needed that time of preparation in the wilderness. He needed to get his mission clear in his own heart so that he wouldn’t be captivated by the expectations of adoring fans or intimidated by the threats of furious critics. If we dare to follow Jesus and proclaim the radical dimensions of God’s good news as he did, we will face the same twin dangers of domestication and intimidation.

Jesus managed to avoid execution that day. But he knew it wouldn’t be his last brush with hostile opposition. Soon he began inviting select individuals to become his followers. As with aspiring musicians who are invited to become the students of a master-musician, this was a momentous decision for them. To become disciples of a rabbi meant entering a rigorous programme of transformation, learning a new way of life, a new set of values, a new set of skills. It meant leaving behind the comforts of home and facing a new set of dangers on the road. Once they were thoroughly apprenticed as disciples, they would then be sent out as apostles to spread the rabbi’s controversial and challenging message everywhere. One did not say ‘yes’ to discipleship lightly.

The word Christian is more familiar to us today than the word disciple. These days, Christian often seems to apply more to the kinds of people who would push Jesus off a cliff than it does to his true followers. Perhaps the time has come to rediscover the power and challenge of that earlier, more primary word disciple. The word disciple occurs over 250 times in the New Testament, in contrast to the word Christian, which occurs only three times. Maybe those statistics are trying to tell us something.

To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to hear that challenging good news of today, and to receive that thrilling invitation to follow him . . . and to take the first intrepid step on the road as a disciple.

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you went through some hardship or temptation that prepared you for a later opportunity, or a time when you missed an opportunity because you were unprepared.

3. How do you respond to the idea that you can be captivated by the expectations of your loyal fans and intimidated by the threats of your hostile critics? Which is a greater danger for you?

4. For children: What’s something you can’t do right now that you hope you will be able to do one day? What will you have to learn in order to do that thing?

5. Activate: This week, write the word disciple in prominent places to remind yourself of Jesus’ invitation to you.

6. Meditate: In silence, imagine Jesus calling your name and saying two words: Follow me. Allow that invitation to stir a response in you at the deepest part of your being.

Chapter 19

water

Chapter 19

Jesus Coming of Age

1 Kings 3
Luke 2:39 – 3:14; 3:21–22
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
1 Timothy 4:6–16


What were you like when you were twelve? In what ways are you the same today? How have you changed?

We have only this one glimpse into Jesus’ childhood. Jesus was twelve, when boys came of age in ancient Jewish culture. He joined his family on their annual pilgrimage south to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday. This was a journey of over sixty miles – not a short trip on foot, maybe taking four or five days each way. This year, as at each Passover holiday, the Jewish people would celebrate the story of God liberating their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Because the Romans now ruled over them, making them feel like slaves again, the holiday kept alive the hopes that a new Moses might arise among them and lead them to expel the Romans. Like every good holiday, then, this Passover was to be about both the past and the present.

People travelled to and from the Passover festival in large groups, so Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was among their fellow travellers when they began the long trek home. When Jesus couldn’t be found, they rushed back to Jerusalem, where they looked for him for three long days. Finally they came to the temple, and there Jesus sat, a twelve-year-old boy among the religious scholars and teachers. He was asking questions of them and answering questions they posed in return. Everyone was amazed at this young spiritual prodigy. He was like a modern-day Solomon, King David’s son who was famous for his wisdom.

His mother pulled him aside and gave him exactly the lecture you would expect. ‘Child!’ she began, as if to remind this young adolescent that he wasn’t grown up yet. ‘Why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried sick. We’ve been looking everywhere for you!’ Jesus replied, ‘Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?’

The reply tells us a lot about Jesus. By the age of twelve, he saw God in tender, fatherly terms. He saw himself as God’s child. He was already deeply curious – demonstrated by his questions to the religious scholars. And he was deeply thoughtful – demonstrated by his wise answers to their questions. Like most parents of teenagers, of course, Mary and Joseph were completely baffled by his behaviour and his explanation of it. He went back to Nazareth with them, and the next eighteen years were summarised by Luke in these fourteen words: ‘Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favour with God and with people’ (CEB).

As Jesus was maturing in Nazareth, his relative John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, was coming of age back in Jerusalem. As the son of a priest, he would have lived the comfortable, privileged life of the upper classes. We would expect him to follow in his father’s footsteps at the temple in Jerusalem, offering sacrifices, officiating at festivals and performing ritual cleansings called baptisms.

Baptisms were essential, because pilgrims who came from distant lands to the temple were understood to be ‘unclean’ as a result of their contact with people of other religions and cultures. Several special baths had been constructed around the temple so that worshippers could ceremonially wash off that contamination and present themselves to God as ‘clean people’ again. It was another way to preserve religious identity during a time of occupation and domination by ‘unclean foreigners’.

Can you imagine how shocking it is for Zechariah’s son to burst onto the scene, preaching and performing baptisms – not in Jerusalem, but over eighty miles to the north and east? Can you imagine the disruption of him performing ritual cleansing – not in the private, holy baths near the temple, but in public, out in the countryside, along the banks of the River Jordan? Can you imagine the gossip about his choice to trade the luxurious robes of the priesthood for the rough garments of a beggar, and the high-class menu of Jerusalem for the subsistence fare of the wilderness? What would such actions mean?

John’s departure from both family and temple suggested that John was protesting against the religious establishment his father faithfully served. Jerusalem’s temple was not all it was held up to be, he would have been saying. A new kind of baptism – with a radical new meaning – was needed. Travelling to a special city and an opulent building could not make people clean and holy. What they needed most was not a change in location, but a change in orientation, a change in heart. People needed a different kind of cleanness – one that couldn’t come through a conventional ceremonial bath in a holy temple.

According to John, the identity that mattered most wasn’t one you could inherit through tribe, nationality or religion – as descendants of Abraham, for example. The identity that mattered most was one you created through your actions . . . by sharing your wealth, possessions and food with those in need, by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business, by treating others fairly and respectfully, and by not being driven by greed. One word summarised John’s message: repent, which meant ‘rethink everything’, or ‘question your assumptions’, or ‘have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values’. His baptism of repentance symbolised being immersed in a flowing river of love, in solidarity not just with the clean, privileged, superior us – but with everyone, everywhere.

Like prophets of old, John issued a powerful warning: God would soon intervene to confront wrong and set things right, and the status quo would soon come to an end. Crowds started streaming out to the countryside to be baptised by John. His protest movement grew, and with it expectation and hope. Maybe John would be the longawaited liberator, the people whispered – like Moses and Joshua, leading people to freedom; like David, instituting a new reign and a new golden age. John quickly squashed those expectations. ‘I’m not the one you’re waiting for,’ he said. ‘I’m preparing the way for someone who is coming after me. He will really clean things up. He will bring the change we need.’

John kept thundering out his message of warning and hope, week after week, month after month. He dared to confront the powerful and name their hypocrisy. (Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod who tried to kill Jesus, couldn’t withstand the agitation of John’s protest movement, so he ultimately would have John arrested and, eventually, beheaded.)

Among the crowds coming to be baptised one day was a young man of about John’s age. By receiving John’s baptism, this young man identified himself with this growing protest movement in the Galilean countryside. As he came out of the water, people heard a sound, as if the sky was cracking open with a rumble of thunder. They saw something descending from the sky . . . it looked like a dove landing on his head. Some claimed to hear the voice of God saying, ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure’ (Mark 1:11, author’s paraphrase).

What Jesus had said about God at the age of twelve in the temple, God now echoed about Jesus at the age of thirty at the riverside: they shared a special parent-child relationship, a deep connection of love and joy. And in that relationship there was an invitation for us all, because Jesus taught that all of us could enter into that warm and secure parent-child relationship with God.

That dove is full of meaning as well. Jesus came, not under the sign of the lion or tiger, not under the sign of the bull or bear, not under the sign of the hawk or eagle or viper . . . but under the sign of the dove – a sign of peace and non-violence. Similarly, when John first saw Jesus, he didn’t say, ‘Behold the Lion of God, come to avenge our enemies,’ but rather, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ To remove sin rather than get revenge for it – that was an agenda of peace indeed.

So now, Jesus had come of age and stepped onto the stage: a man with a dove-like spirit, a man with the gentleness of a lamb, a man of peace whose identity was rooted in this profound reality: God’s beloved child.

When we awaken within that deep relationship of mutual love and pleasure, we are ready to join in God’s peace movement today – an adventure of protest, hope and creative, non-violent, world-transforming change.

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share the story of your baptism or some other initiation experience you’ve had.

3. How do you respond to this explanation of John the Baptist and baptism? In breaking with tradition, what kind of challenges do you think he encountered?

4. For children: When you think of a dove and a lamb, what do you think of?

5. Activate: This week, look for every chance to ‘grow in wisdom’ by listening, learning and asking questions.

6. Meditate: Imagine God asking you, ‘What one thing would you like me to do for you?’ As Solomon asked for wisdom, hold one request up to God in silence. Then receive God’s message to Jesus as a message to you by saying these words, silently or aloud, one time or several times: ‘[Your name], you are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.’ Finally, make these words your own: ‘I am [my name], your child, whom you dearly love. In me you find pleasure.’

Chapter 18

annie-spratt-175331.jpg

Chapter 18

Sharing Gifts
(Sunday after Christmas Day)

Psalm 117
Matthew 2:1–12

Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Luke 2:25–32


They were called Magi . . . we know them as wise men. They were astrologers, holy men of a foreign religion. They had observed a strange celestial phenomenon, which they interpreted to mean that a new king had been born in Judea. According to Matthew’s Gospel, they travelled to honour him, bringing valuable treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh – precious gifts indeed.

In their giving of gifts they were wiser than they realised. Gift-giving, it turns out, was at the heart of all Jesus would say and do. God is like a parent, Jesus would teach, who loves to shower their sons and daughters with good gifts. The kingdom or commonwealth of God that Jesus constantly proclaimed was characterised by an abundant, gracious, extravagant economy of grace, of generosity, of gift-giving. ‘It is better to give than to receive,’ Jesus taught, and his followers came to understand Jesus himself as a gift expressing God’s love to the whole world.

So, in memory of the wise men’s gift-giving to Jesus, in honour of Jesus’ teaching and example of giving, and as an echo of God’s self-giving in Jesus, we joyfully give one another gifts when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.

Not everyone felt generosity in response to this new baby. King Herod was furious about anyone who might unsettle the status quo. When he deployed troops to the Bethlehem region with orders to kill all infant boys, Joseph was warned in a dream to escape. So the family fled south to Egypt, where Jesus spent part of his childhood as a refugee.

How meaningful it is that members of other religions – the Magi from the east and the Egyptians to the south – help save Jesus’ life. Could their role in the Christmas story be a gift to us today? Could they be telling us that God has a better way for religions to relate to one another?

Through the centuries, religions have repeatedly divided people. Religions – including the Christian religion – have too often spread fear, prejudice, hate and violence in our world. But in the Magi’s offering of gifts to honour the infant Jesus, and in the Egyptians’ protective hospitality for Jesus and his refugee family, we can see a better way, a way Jesus himself embodied and taught as a man. They remind us that members of Earth’s religions don’t need to see their counterparts as competitors or enemies. Instead, we can approach one another with the spirit of gift-giving and honour, as exemplified by the Magi. We can be there to welcome and protect one another, as exemplified by the Egyptians.

Instead of looking for faults and errors by which other religions can be discredited, insulted and excluded, we can ask other questions: What good can be discovered in this religion? Let us honour it. What treasures have they been given to share with us? Let us warmly welcome them. What dangers do they face? Let us protect them. What gifts do we have to share with them? Let us generously offer them.

According to Matthew, when King Herod died, Joseph had another dream telling him it was safe to return to his homeland. But Herod’s son still ruled Judea, the region around Bethlehem, so the family went further north to another region, Galilee. They resettled in Nazareth, Galilee – which would be Jesus’ address throughout the rest of his childhood and young adulthood.

So, having been protected by the Magi and the Egyptians, Jesus grew up as a Galilean Jew. The Jews were the descendants of the Judeans who had survived the Babylonian invasion over five centuries earlier. They had not lost their identity while living under exile in Babylon. Nor had they lost that identity over the following centuries, when they survived occupation and oppression by the Persians, Greeks and Romans. Because the Jews had so courageously survived oppression and mistreatment by others, and because they believed God had given them special blessings to enjoy and share with everyone, no wonder Jewish identity was highly cherished. No wonder it was repeatedly affirmed and celebrated through holidays like Passover and rites of passage like circumcision.

Luke’s Gospel doesn’t tell us about the Magi or the Egyptians. For Luke, the next big event after Jesus’ birth came eight days later, when Jesus’ parents took him to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised, a primary sign of Jewish identity for every newborn son. You can imagine his parents’ surprise when an old man, a perfect stranger named Simeon, came up to them in the temple and took Jesus from their arms and began praising God. ‘This child will be a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and a glory to God’s people, Israel,’ Simeon said. He was seeing in Jesus a gift for us and for them both, not one against the other or one without the other.

Old Simeon the Jew in Luke’s Gospel and the non-Jewish Magi from the east in Matthew’s Gospel agree: this child is special. He is worthy of honour. He has gifts that will bring blessing to his own people, and to all people everywhere. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to know ourselves as part of a tradition and, through that tradition, to have a history and an identity to enjoy, preserve and share. And to be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to see others as part of their unique traditions too, with their own history, identity and gifts. Like the Magi, like the Egyptians, like old Simeon . . . we don’t have to see people of other religions in terms of us versus them. We can see people of other religions as beloved neighbours, us with them, them with us, with gifts to share.

May we who follow Jesus discover the gifts of our tradition and share them generously, and may we joyfully receive the gifts that others bring as well. For every good gift and every perfect gift comes from God.

Chapter 17a

candles

Chapter 17

The Light Has Come
(Christmas Eve)

Isaiah 60:1–3
John 1:1–5, 9–10; 3:19–21; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35–36, 46

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.


Do you remember how the whole biblical story begins? ‘In the . . .’ And do you remember the first creation that is spoken into being? ‘Let there be . . .’

On Christmas Eve, we celebrate a new beginning. We welcome the dawning of a new light.

A new day begins with sunrise. A new year begins with lengthening days. A new life begins with infant eyes taking in their first view of a world bathed in light. And a new era in human history began when God’s light came shining into our world through Jesus.

The Fourth Gospel tells us that what came into being through Jesus was not merely a new religion, a new theology or a new set of principles or teachings – although all these things did indeed happen. The real point of it all, according to John, was life, vitality, aliveness – and now that Jesus has come, that radiant aliveness is here to enlighten all people everywhere.

Some people don’t see it yet. Some don’t want to see it. They’ve got some shady plans that they want to preserve undercover, in darkness. From pickpockets to corrupt politicians, from human traffickers to exploitative business sharks, from terrorists plotting in hidden cells to racists spreading messages of hate, they don’t welcome the light, because transparency exposes their plans and deeds for what they are: evil. So they prefer darkness.

But others welcome the light. They receive it as a gift, and in that receiving they let God’s holy, radiant aliveness stream into their lives. They become portals of light in our world and they start living as members of God’s family – which means they’re related to all of God’s creation. That relatedness is the essence of enlightenment.

What do we mean when we say Jesus is the light? Just as a glow on the eastern horizon tells us that a long night is almost over, Jesus’ birth signals the beginning of the end for the dark night of fear, hostility, violence and greed that has descended on our world. Jesus’ birth signals the start of a new day, a new way, a new understanding of what it means to be alive.

Aliveness, he will teach, is a gift available to all by God’s grace. It flows not from taking but from giving, not from fear but from faith, not from conflict but from reconciliation, not from domination but from service. It isn’t found in the outward trappings of religion – rules and rituals, controversies and scruples, temples and traditions. No, it springs up from our innermost being like a fountain of living water. It intoxicates us like the best wine ever and so turns life from a disappointment into a banquet. This new light of aliveness and love opens us up to rethink everything – to go back and become like little children again. Then we can rediscover the world with a fresh, child- like wonder – seeing the world in a new light, the light of Christ.

On Christmas Eve, then, we remember a silent, holy night long ago when Luke tells us of a young and very pregnant woman and a weary man walking beside her. They had travelled over eighty miles, a journey of several days, from Nazareth in the province of Galilee to Bethlehem in the province of Judea. Mary went into labour, and because nobody could provide them with a normal bed in a normal house, she had to give birth in a stable. We can imagine oxen and donkeys and cattle filling the air with their sounds and scent as Mary wrapped the baby in rags and laid him in a manger, a food trough for farm animals. On that dark night, in such a humble place, enfleshed in a tiny, vulnerable, homeless, helpless baby . . . God’s light began to glow.

Politicians compete for the highest offices. Business tycoons scramble for a bigger and bigger piece of the pie. Armies march and scientists study and philosophers philosophise and preachers preach and labourers sweat. But in that silent baby, lying in that humble manger, there pulses more potential power and wisdom and grace and aliveness than all the rest of us can imagine.

To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to kneel at the manger and gaze upon that little baby who is radiant with so much promise for our world today.

So let us light a candle for the Christ child, for the infant Jesus, the Word made flesh. Let our hearts glow with that light that was in him, so that we become candles through which his light shines still. For Christmas is a process as well as an event. Your heart and mine can become the little town, the stable, the manger . . . even now. Let a new day, a new creation, a new you, a new me, begin.

Let there be light.

Chapter 17

Homeless-by-a-wall.jpg

Chapter 17

Surprising People

Psalm 34:1–18
The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
Matthew 1:1–17
Luke 2:8–20


And Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob . . . To modern readers, the ancestor lists that are so common in the Bible seem pretty tedious and pointless. But to ancient people, they were full of meaning. They were shorthand ways of showing connections, helping people remember how they were related, and reminding them of the story that they found themselves in.

Both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels give us ancestor lists for Jesus. Although they are very different lists, both agree on two essential points. First, Jesus was a descendant of Sarah and Abraham. That reminded people of God’s original promise to Abraham and Sarah – that through their lineage, all nations of the world would be blessed. Second, Jesus was a descendant of King David. That brought to mind all the nostalgia for the golden age of David’s reign, together with all the hope from the prophets about a promised time under the benevolent reign of a descendant of David.

Apart from these similarities, the two lists offer distinct treasures. Luke’s Gospel starts with the present and goes back, all the way to Abraham, and then all the way to Adam, the original human in the Genesis story: ‘son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.’ The use of that phrase ‘son of God’ is fascinating. It suggests a primary meaning of the term: to be the son of is to ‘find your origin in’. It also suggests that Jesus, as the son of Adam, is in some way a new beginning for the human race – a new genesis, we might say. Just as Adam bore the image of God as the original human, Jesus will now reflect the image of God. We might say he is Adam 2.0.

That understanding is reinforced by what comes immediately before Luke’s ancestor list. A voice comes from heaven and says, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Just as Son of David prepares us to expect Jesus to model leadership, and just as Son of Abraham prepares us to expect Jesus to model blessing and promise for all, Son of God sets us up to expect Jesus to model true humanity as Adam did.

Matthew’s version, which starts in the distant past and moves to the present, holds lots of treasures, too. Most surprising is his inclusion of five women. In the ancient world, people were unaware of the existence of the human egg and assumed that a man provided the only seed of a new life. So ancestor lists naturally focused on men. It’s surprising enough for Matthew to include women at all, but the women he selects are quite astonishing.

First, there is Tamar. She had once posed as a prostitute in a web of sexual and family intrigue. Then there is Rahab – a Gentile of Jericho who was actually a prostitute. Then there is Ruth, another Gentile who entered into a sexual liaison with a wealthy Jew named Boaz. Then there is Bathsheba who was married to a foreigner – Uriah the Hittite – and with whom King David committed adultery. Finally there is Mary, who claims to be pregnant without the help of Joseph. These are not the kind of women whose names were typically included in ancestor lists of the past!

But that, of course, must be Matthew’s point. Jesus isn’t entering into a pristine story of ideal people. He is part of the story of Gentiles as well as Jews, broken and messy families as well as noble ones, normal people as well as kings and priests and heroes. We might say that Jesus isn’t entering humanity from the top with a kind of trickledown grace, but rather from the bottom, with grace that rises from the grass roots up.

That theme is beautifully embodied in the unsung heroes of Luke’s Christmas story: shepherds. They’re the ones who, along with Joseph and Mary, have a front-row seat to welcome the ‘good news of great joy for all the people’. They’re the down-to-Earth people who hear the celestial announcement from angelic messengers.

Shepherds were marginal people in society – a lot like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary.

They weren’t normal ‘family men’ because they lived outdoors most of the time, guarding sheep from wolves and thieves, and guiding sheep to suitable pasture. A younger son, for whom there was no hope of inheriting the family farm, might become a shepherd, as would a man who for some reason was not suitable for marriage. It was among poor men like these that Jesus’ birth was first celebrated.

The poor, of course, have a special place in the Bible. The priests and prophets of Israel agreed that God had a special concern for the poor. God commanded all rightliving people to be generous to them. Provision was made for the landless to be able to glean from the fields of the prosperous. According to Proverbs, those who exploited the poor – or simply didn’t care about them – would not prosper, and those who were good to the poor would be blessed.

The poor were especially central to the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus understood himself to be empowered by the Spirit to bring good news to the poor. In Jesus’ parables, God cared for the poor and confronted the rich who showed the poor no compassion. Jesus taught rich people to give generously to the poor, and even though others considered the poor to be cursed, Jesus pronounced the poor and those who are in solidarity with them to be blessed. When Jesus said, ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ he was echoing Deuteronomy 15:4 (NLT), which says, ‘There should be no poor among you,’ for there is actually enough in God’s world for everyone.

Although much has changed from Jesus’ day to ours, this has not: a small percentage of the world’s population lives in luxury, and the majority live in poverty. For example, about half the people in today’s world struggle to survive on less than £1.50 per day. Those who subsist 75p per day make up over a billion of the world’s 7 billion people. About half of the people in sub-Saharan Africa and over 35 per cent of people in South-east Asia fit in this category. They are today’s shepherds, working the rice fields, streaming into slums, sleeping on pavements, struggling to survive.

So let us light a candle for surprising people like the women of the ancestor lists and the shepherds of the ancient world, and for their counterparts today – all who are marginalised, dispossessed, vulnerable, hungry for good nutrition, thirsty for drinkable water, desperate to know they are not forgotten.

Let us join them in their vigil of hope – waiting for good news of great joy for all people, all people, all people. Amen.

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a shady or colourful character from your family history.

3. How do you respond to this approach to the meaning of ‘son of God’?

4. For children: Imagine you are a shepherd in the time of Jesus. What do you think your life would be like?

5. Activate: This week, look for surprising people to whom you can show uncommon respect and unexpected kindness.

6. Meditate: After lighting a candle, hold the words ‘good news of great joy for all people’ in your heart in God’s presence for a few moments of silence. Break the silence with a short prayer.

Chapter 16

freestocks-org-70276.jpg

Chapter 16

Keeping Herod in Christmas

Jeremiah 32:31–35
Micah 5:2–5a
Matthew 1:18 – 2:15
. . . the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’


Right in the middle of Matthew’s version of the Christmas story comes a shock. It is disturbing, terrifying and horrific. And it is essential to understanding the adventure and mission of Jesus.

King Herod, or Herod the Great, ruled over Judea in the years leading up to Jesus’ birth. Although he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem – a sign of his Jewish identity – he was a puppet king who also depended on the Roman Empire for his status. He was, like many biblical characters – and like many of us, too – a man with an identity crisis. Cruel and ruthless, he used slave labour for his huge building projects. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone he considered a threat – including his wife and two of his own sons. Late in his reign, he began hearing rumours... rumours that the longawaited liberator prophesied by Isaiah and others had been born. While a pious man might have greeted this news with hope and joy, Herod only saw it as a threat – a threat to political stability and to his own status as king.

In recent years, there had been a lot of resistance, unrest and revolt in Jerusalem, so Rome wasn’t in a tolerant frame of mind. Any talk of rebellion, Herod knew, would bring crushing retaliation against the city. So Herod enquired of the religious scholars to find out if the holy texts gave any indication of where this long-anticipated child would be born. Their answer came from the book of Micah: Bethlehem.

Herod did what any desperate, ruthless dictator would do. First, he tried to enlist some foreign mystics, known to us as ‘the wise men from the East’. He wanted them to be his spies to help him discover the child’s identity and whereabouts so he could have the child killed. But the wise men were warned of his deceit in a dream and so avoided becoming his unwitting accomplices. Realising that his ‘Plan A’ had failed, Herod launched ‘Plan B’. He sent his henchmen to find and kill any young boy living in the area of Bethlehem. But the particular boy he sought had already been removed from Bethlehem and taken elsewhere.

The result? A slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem. As is the case with many biblical stories, some scholars doubt this mass slaughter occurred, since none is recorded in other histories of the time. Others argue that Bethlehem was a small town, so the total number of casualties may have been twenty or thirty. Dictators certainly have their ways of keeping atrocities secret – just as they have their ways of making their exploits known. Whatever the infant death count in Bethlehem, we know Herod killed some of his own children when they became a threat to his agenda. So even if the story has been fictionalised to some degree, there is a deeper truth that has much to say to us today.

In his slaughter of innocent children, King Herod has now emulated the horrible behaviour of Pharaoh centuries before, in the days of Moses. A descendant of the slaves has behaved like the ancient slave-master. The story of Herod tells us once again that the world can’t be simply divided between the good guys – us – and the bad guys – them – because like Herod, members of us will behave no differently from them, given the power and provocation. So all people face the same profound questions: How will we manage power? How will we deal with violence?

Herod – and Pharaoh before him – model one way: violence is simply one tool, used in varying degrees, to gain or maintain power. The baby whom Herod seeks to kill will model another way. His tool will be service, not violence. And his goal will not be gaining and maintaining power, but using his power to heal and empower others. He will reveal a vision of God that is reflected more in the vulnerability of children than in the violence of men, more in the caring of mothers than in the cruelty of kings.

All this can sound quite abstract and theoretical unless we go one step deeper. The next war – whoever wages it – will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grandchildren. Most of the casualties will probably be between eighteen and twenty-two years old – in some places, much younger. So the old, sad music of the ancient story of Herod and the slaughter of the children will be replayed again. And again, the tears of mothers will fall.

The sacrifice of children for the well-being and security of adults has a long history among human beings. For example, in the ancient Middle East there was a religion dedicated to an idol named Molech. Faithful adherents would sacrifice infants to Molech every year, a horrible display of twisted religiosity to appease their god’s wrath and earn his favour. In contrast, beginning with the story of Abraham and Isaac, we gradually discover that the true God doesn’t require appeasement at all. In fact, God exemplifies true, loving, mature parenthood . . . self-giving for the sake of one’s children, not sacrificing children for one’s own selfish interests.

This is why it matters so much for us to grapple with what we believe about God. Does God promote or demand violence? Does God favour the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults? Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf? Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?

We do not live in an ideal world. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to face at every turn the destructive reality of violence. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to side with vulnerable children in defiance of the adults who see them as expendable. To walk the road with Jesus is to withhold consent and co-operation from the powerful, and to invest it instead with the vulnerable. It is to refuse to bow to all the Herods and all their ruthless regimes – and to reserve our loyalty for a better King and a better Kingdom.

Jesus has truly come, but each year during the Advent season we acknowledge that the dream for which he gave his all has not yet fully come true. As long as elites plot violence, as long as children pay the price and as long as mothers weep, we cannot be satisfied.

So let us light a candle for the children who suffer in our world because of greedy, power-hungry and insecure elites. And let us light a candle for grieving mothers who weep for lost sons and daughters, throughout history and today. And let us light a candle for all people everywhere to hear their weeping.

In this Advent season, we dare to believe that God feels their pain and comes near to bring comfort.

If we believe that is true, then of course we must join God and come near, too. That is why we must keep Herod and the ugliness of his mass murder in the beautiful Christmas story.

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you were a child and an adult other than a parent showed you great respect or kindness.

3. How do you respond to Matthew’s decision to include this story that none of the other Gospels recount?

4. For children: If you could ask grown-ups to do one thing to help children, what would it be?

5. Activate: This week, try to look at personal and political situations from the vantage point of how they will affect children and their mothers.

6. Meditate: Light a candle, and hold in your mind both the image of Herod, ruthless and powerhungry, and the image of Jesus, a vulnerable baby. Observe what happens in your heart and express a prayer in response.

Chapter 15

freestocks-org-70276.jpg

Chapter 15

Woman on the Edge

Luke 1:5–55
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Isaiah 7:14; 9:2–7
Romans 12:1–2


Imagine a woman in the ancient world who all her life longed to have children. She married young, maybe around the age of fifteen. At sixteen, still no pregnancy. At twenty, still no pregnancy. At twenty-five, imagine how she prayed. By thirty, imagine her anxiety as her prayers were mixed with tears of shame and disappointment – for herself, for her husband. At forty, imagine hope slipping away as she wondered if it even made sense to pray any more. Imagine her sense of loss and regret at fifty. Why pray now?

Of course, this was the story of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, back in the book of Genesis. That ancient story was echoed in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us of a woman named Elizabeth who was married to a priest named Zechariah. They prayed for a child, but none came, year after year. One day as Zechariah was doing his priestly duties, he had a vision of an angelic messenger from God. Zechariah’s prayers for a son would be answered, the messenger said. When Elizabeth gave birth, they should name their child John. Zechariah found this impossible to believe. ‘I’m an old man,’ he said, ‘and Elizabeth is past her prime as well!’ The messenger told him that because of his scepticism, he would not be able to speak until the promised baby was born.

In a way, the stories of Sarah and Elizabeth are a picture of the experience of the Jewish people. The prophets had inspired them to dream of a better day. Their prophecies echoed the first promise to Abraham: that everyone everywhere would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. But those promises and prophecies had been delayed and frustrated and delayed again, until it seemed ridiculous to keep the dream alive.

All of us experience this sense of frustration, disappointment, impatience and despair at times. We all feel that we have the capacity to give birth to something beautiful and good and needed and wonderful in the world. But our potential goes unfulfilled, or our promising hopes miscarry. So we live on one side and then on the other of the border of despair.

And then the impossible happens.

Elizabeth had a young relative named Mary. Mary was engaged but not yet married. Significantly, she was a descendant of King David, whose memory inspired the hope of a David-like king who would bring the better days long hoped for among her people. When Elizabeth was about six months pregnant, an angelic messenger – the same one who appeared to Zechariah, it turns out – now appeared to Mary. ‘Greetings, favoured one!’ he said. ‘The Lord is with you!’ Mary felt, as any of us would, amazed and confused by this greeting.

The messenger said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary. You will conceive and bear a son . . .’ And the messenger’s words echoed the promises of the prophets from centuries past – promises of a leader who would bring the people into the promised time. Mary asked, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel replied that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, so the child would be conceived by the power of God. And he added that Elizabeth, her old and barren relative, was also pregnant. ‘Nothing will be impossible with God,’ he said.

Many of us today will suspect that Luke made up this story about Mary to echo Isaiah’s prophecy about a son being born to a virgin, just as he invented the story of Elizabeth conceiving in old age to echo the story of Sarah. It’s tempting to quickly assign both stories to the category of primitive, pre-scientific legend and be done with them. After all, both stories are, to scientific minds, simply impossible.

But what if that’s the point? What if their purpose is to challenge us to blur the line between what we think is possible and what we think is impossible? Could we ever come to a time when swords would be beaten into ploughshares? When the predatory people in power – the lions – would lie down in peace with the vulnerable and the poor – the lambs? When God’s justice would flow like a river – to the lowest and most ‘Godforsaken’ places on Earth? When the broken-hearted would be comforted and the poor would receive good news? If you think, Never – it’s impossible, then maybe you need to think again. Maybe it’s not too late for something beautiful to be born. Maybe it’s not too soon, either. Maybe the present moment is pregnant with possibilities we can’t see or even imagine.

In this light, the actual point of these pregnancy stories – however we interpret their factual status – is a challenge to us all: to dare to hope, like Elizabeth and Mary, that the seemingly impossible is possible. They challenge us to align our lives around the ‘impossible possibilities’ hidden in this present, pregnant moment.

The image of a virgin birth has other meanings as well. The leaders of ancient empires typically presented themselves as divine-human hybrids with superpowers. Pharaohs and Caesars were ‘sons of gods’. In them, the violent power of the gods was fused with the violent power of humans to create superhuman superviolence – which allowed them to create superpower nations. But here is God gently inviting – not coercing – a young woman to produce a child who will be known not for his violence but for his kindness. This is a different kind of leader entirely – one who doesn’t rule with the masculine power of swords and spears, but with a mother’s sense of justice and compassion.

In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, God aligns with the creative feminine power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood. The doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counterviolence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered ‘the weaker sex’ that God’s true power enters and changes the world. That, it turns out, is exactly what Mary understood the messenger to be saying: God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant . . . scattered the proud . . . brought down the powerful . . . lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:48, 51, 52, 53)

So Mary presents herself to the Holy Spirit to receive and co-operate with God’s creative power. She surrenders and receives, she nurtures and gives her all . . . because she dares to believe the impossible is possible. Her son Jesus will consistently model her self-surrender and receptivity to God, and he will consistently prefer the insightful kindness of motherhood to the violent blindness of statehood.

That’s what it means to be alive in the adventure of Jesus. We present ourselves to God – our bodies, our stories, our futures, our possibilities, even our limitations. ‘Here I am,’ we say with Mary, ‘the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me according to your will.’

So in this Advent season – this season of awaiting and pondering the coming of God in Christ – let us light a candle for Mary. And let us, in our own hearts, dare to believe the impossible by surrendering ourselves to God, courageously co-operating with God’s creative, pregnant power – in us, for us and through us.

If we do, then we, like Mary, will become pregnant with holy aliveness.

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a woman in your life who had a powerful influence.

3. How do you respond to these reflections on the meaning of the virgin birth?

4. For children: Tell us about a time you were surprised in a good and happy way.

5. Activate: Start each day this week putting Mary’s prayer of commitment and surrender, ‘Let it be to me according to your will’, into your own words. Let this be a week of presenting your life to God so that ‘holy aliveness’ grows in you.

6. Meditate: After lighting a candle, hold the words ‘Here I am, the Lord’s servant’ in your heart for a few minutes in silence. Try to return to those words many times in the week ahead.

Part 2 / Chapter 14

Jesus-Stained-Glass.png

Part 2

Alive in the adventure of Jesus

In Part 1, we explored what it means to be alive in the story of creation... a story that includes crisis, calling, captivity, conquest and conversation. Into that conversation comes a man named Jesus, a man whose character, words and example changed history. In Part 2, we will explore what it means to be alive in the adventure of Jesus.

We begin with the story of his birth (during the traditional seasons of Advent and Christmas), and then we follow him through childhood to adulthood, as the light of God shines brightly through him (during the season of Epiphany). Our exploration will lead to this life-changing choice: will we identify ourselves as honest and sincere followers of Jesus today?

At the end of each of the first five chapters, you’ll be invited to light a candle. Whether you do so alone or maybe along with your DNA group friends, use that simple tradition as an invitation to joyful, hopeful, reverent contemplation.

Sea_of_Galilee.jpg

Chapter 14

Promised Land, Promised Time

Daniel 7:9–28
Isaiah 40:9–11
He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
Luke 1:67–79


To be alive is to desire, to hope and to dream, and the Bible is a book about desires, hopes and dreams. The story begins with God’s desire for a good and beautiful world, of which we are a part. Soon, some of us desire the power to kill, enslave or oppress others. Enslaved and oppressed people hope for liberation. Wilderness wanderers desire a promised land where they can settle. Settled people dream of a promised time when they won’t be torn apart by internal factions, ruled by corrupt elites or dominated by stronger nations nearby.

Desires, hopes and dreams inspire action, and that’s what makes them so different from a wish. Wishing is a substitute for action. Wishing creates a kind of passive optimism that can paralyse people in a happy fog of complacency: ‘Everything will turn out fine. Why work, struggle, sacrifice or plan?’ Guess what happens to people who never work, struggle, sacrifice or plan? Things don’t normally turn out the way they wish!

In contrast, our desires, hopes and dreams for the future guide us in how to act now. If a girl hopes to be a doctor one day, she’ll study hard and prepare for medical school. If a boy dreams of being a marine biologist one day, he’ll spend time around the sea and learn to snorkel and scuba-dive. Their hope for the future guides them in how to act now. They align their lives by their hope, and in that way their lives are shaped by hope. Without action, they would be wishing, not hoping.

Prophets in the Bible have a fascinating role as custodians of the best hopes, desires and dreams of their society. They challenge people to act in ways consistent with those hopes, desires and dreams. And when they see people behaving in harmful ways, they warn them by picturing the future to which that harmful behaviour will lead.

Isaiah Overview

One of the most important prophetic compositions was the book of Isaiah. Most scholars today agree that at least three people contributed to the book over a long period of time, but their combined work has traditionally been attributed to one author. The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah were situated in the southern Kingdom of Judah, just before the northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and colonised by the Assyrians. The prophet saw deep spiritual corruption and complacency among his people and warned them that this kind of behaviour would lead to decline and defeat.

That defeat came in 587 BC at the hand of the Babylonians. After the invasion, many survivors were taken as exiles to Babylon. Chapters 40 – 55, often called ‘Second Isaiah’, addressed those Judean exiles, inspiring hope that they would one day return to their homeland and rebuild it. That soon happened, beginning in 538 BC under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. That era of rebuilding was the setting for ‘Third Isaiah’, chapters 56 – 66.

For readers in later generations, ingredients from these three different settings blend into one rich recipe for hope, full of imagery that still energises our imagination today.

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (2:4)
A shoot shall come out from the stock of [David’s father] Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him . . .
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them . . .
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (11:1–2, 6, 9)
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (42:1–3)

Isaiah’s descriptions of that better day were so inspiring that Jesus and his early followers quoted Isaiah more than any other writer. But many other prophets added their own colours to this beautiful vision of hope. In Ezekiel’s vision, people’s hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. For Malachi, the hearts of parents would turn to their children, and children to their parents. Joel describes the Spirit of God being poured out on all humanity – young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile. Amos paints the vivid scene of justice rolling down like a river, filling all the lowest places. And Daniel envisioned the world’s beast-like empires of violence being overcome by a simple unarmed human being, a new generation of humanity.

In the centuries between the time of the prophets and the birth of Jesus, these prophetic dreams never completely died. But they were never completely fulfilled either. Yes, conditions for the Jews improved under the Persians, but things still weren’t as good as the prophets promised. Next the Greek and Seleucid empires took control of the region, and for a time the Jews threw off their oppressors. But their independence was brief, and the full dream of the prophets remained unfulfilled. Next the Romans seized power, subjugating and humiliating the Jews and testing their hope as never before. Yet their dream lived on. It remained alive in people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, and Anna and Simeon, and even among humble shepherds who lived at the margins of society.

To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a desire, a dream, a hope for the future. It is to translate that hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.

So let us begin this Advent season by lighting a candle for the prophets who proclaimed their hopes, desires and dreams. Let us keep their flame glowing strong in our hearts, even now.

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you kept hope or lost hope.

3. How do you respond to the imagery of Isaiah, and how would you translate some of that imagery from the ancient Middle East into imagery from today’s world?

4. For children: What do you hope to be or do when you grow up?

5. Activate: This week, look for discouragement or cynicism in your own thinking. Challenge yourself to become cynical about your cynicism, and challenge yourself towards prophetic hope.

6. Meditate: Light a candle and choose one image from the prophets mentioned in this chapter. Simply hold that image in your heart, in God’s presence. Let it inspire a simple prayer that you may wish to speak aloud.

Chapter 13

jason-rosewell-60014.jpg

Chapter 13

The Great Conversation

Isaiah 1:1 – 2:5
. . . seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
Romans 15:1–13
Matthew 9:10–17


It was about 800 BC. The Israelites and Judeans had already survived so much. In addition to all the trouble within their respective borders – much of it caused by corrupt leaders – even bigger trouble was brewing outside. The two tiny nations were dwarfed by superpower neighbours, each of which had desires to expand. To the north and east were the Assyrians. To the east were the Babylonians, and to their east, the Persians. To the south were the Egyptians, and to the West, the Mediterranean Sea. How could Israel and Judah, each smaller than present-day Jamaica, Qatar or Connecticut, hope to survive, surrounded in this way?

The northern Kingdom of Israel fell first. In 722 BC, the Assyrians invaded and deported many of the Israelites into Assyria. These displaced Israelites eventually intermarried and lost their distinct identity as children of Abraham. They’re remembered today as ‘the ten lost tribes of Israel’. The Assyrians quickly repopulated the conquered kingdom with large numbers of their own, who then intermarried with the remaining Israelites. The mixed descendants, later known as Samaritans, would experience a long-standing tension with the ‘pure’ descendants of Abraham in Judah to the south.

Judah resisted conquest for just over another century, during which Assyrian power declined and Babylonian power increased. Finally, around 587 BC, Judah was conquered by the Babylonians. Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed. The nation’s ‘brightest and best’ were deported as exiles to the Babylonian capital. The peasants were left to till the land and ‘share’ their harvest with the occupying regime. For about seventy years, this sorry state of affairs continued.

Jewish captives with camel and baggage on their way into exile.

Jewish captives with camel and baggage on their way into exile.

Babylon, meanwhile, was being pressured by their neighbour to the east, the Persians. Soon the Persians conquered the Babylonians. They had a more lenient policy for managing the nations under their power, so in 538 they allowed the exiled Judeans to return and rebuild their capital city. But even with this increased freedom, the people remained under the heel of foreigners. They had survived, but they still felt defeated.

How should they interpret their plight? Some feared that God had failed or abandoned them. Others blamed themselves for displeasing God in some way. Those who felt abandoned by God expressed their devastation in heart-rending poetry. Those who felt they had displeased God tried to identify their offences, assign blame and call for repentance. It was during this devastating period of exile and return that much of the oral tradition known to us as the Old Testament was either written down for the first time, or re-edited and compiled. No wonder, arising in such times of turmoil and tumult, the Bible is such a dynamic collection!

As the people changed and evolved, their understanding of God changed and evolved. For example, when they were nomadic wanderers in the desert, they envisioned God as a pillar of cloud and fire, cooling them by day and warming them by night. When they were involved in conquest, God was the Lord of Hosts, the commander of armies. When they were being pursued by enemies, God was pictured as a hiding place in the rocks. When they became a unified kingdom, God was their ultimate King. When they returned to their land and felt more secure, more gentle images of God took centre stage – God as their Shepherd, for example. When they suffered defeat, they saw God as their avenger. When they suffered injustice, God was the judge who would convict their oppressors and restore justice. When they felt abandoned and alone in a foreign land, they imagined God as a loving mother who could never forget her nursing child.

Not only do we see their understanding of God evolve under evolving circumstances, we also see their understanding of human affairs mature. For example, to immature minds, there are two kinds of leaders: those who have been set in place by God, and those who haven’t. The former deserve absolute obedience, since to disobey them would be to disobey God. But in the Bible we see this simplistic thinking challenged. Moses, for example, was a God-anointed leader, and people were indeed urged to obey him and they were punished when they didn’t. Yet when Moses made mistakes of his own, he got no special treatment. The same with Saul, and the same even with David.

As their understanding of human affairs matured, their moral reasoning matured as well. In the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve wanted to grasp the fruit of knowing good and evil, as if that were a simple thing. But as the biblical story unfolded, first it became clear that the line between good and evil didn’t run between groups of us and them. There were good guys among them – including people like Melchizedek, Abimelech, Jethro, Rahab and Ruth. And there were plenty of bad guys among us – including most of the kings of Israel and Judah. It became clear that the dividing line doesn’t simply run between good and bad individuals, as many people today still believe. Some of the Bible’s best ‘good guys’ – like David and Solomon – did really bad things. So the Bible presents a morally complex and dynamic world where the best of us can do wrong and the worst of us can do right. The line between good and evil runs – and moves – within each of us.

The Bible often conveys this growing moral wisdom by drawing a third option from two irreconcilable viewpoints on an issue. For example, some biblical voices interpreted the move from an alliance of tribes to a kingdom as a tragic sign that the people had rejected God as their king. Others saw the monarchy as a gift from God, a big improvement over the previous chaos. When both sets of voices are heard, it’s clear that each had some of the truth: a strong central government can be both a curse and a blessing, not just one or the other.

Similarly, some biblical voices argued that God required animals to be slaughtered so their blood could be offered as a sacrifice. Without sacrifice, they believed, sins could not be forgiven, so they gave detailed instructions for sacrifice that, they claimed, were dictated by God. Other voices said no, God never really desired bloody sacrifices, but instead wanted another kind of holy gift from humanity: contrite and compassionate hearts, and justice, kindness and humility. When we give both sets of voices a fair hearing, we can agree that sacrifices fulfilled a necessary function for the people at one point in their development, even though ultimately sacrifices weren’t an absolute and eternal necessity.

Meanwhile, many voices claimed that Abraham’s descendants were God’s only chosen and favoured people. Others countered that God created and loves all people and has chosen and guided all nations for various purposes. If we listen to both claims, we can conclude that just as a little girl feels she is uniquely loved by her parents, even as her little brother feels the same way, each nation is intended to feel it is special to God – not to the exclusion of others, but along with others.

From Genesis to Job, the Bible is full of conversations like these – with differing viewpoints making their case, point and counterpoint, statement and counterstatement. Sadly, throughout history people have often quoted one side or the other to prove that their view alone is ‘biblical’. That’s why it’s important for us to remain humble as we read the Bible, not to seek ammunition for the side of an argument we already stand on, but to seek the wisdom that comes when we listen humbly to all the different voices arising in the biblical library. Wisdom emerges from the conversation among these voices, voices we could arrange in five broad categories.

First, there are the voices of the priests who emphasise keeping the law, maintaining order, offering sacrifices and faithfully maintaining traditions and taboos. Then there are the voices of the prophets, often in tension with the priests, who emphasise social justice, care for the poor and the condition of the heart. Next are the poets, who express the full range of human emotion and opinion – the good, the bad and the ugly. Then come the sages, who, in proverb, essay and creative fiction, record their theories, observations, questions and doubts. And linking them together are storytellers, each with varying agendas, who try to tell the stories of the people who look back to Abraham as their father, Moses as their liberator, David as their greatest king and God as their Creator and faithful companion. To be alive is to seek wisdom in this great conversation . . . and to keep it going today.

Could it be that we are doing just that, here and now, walking this road in conversation together?

Engage

Meditate and Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about an argument where both sides were partly right.

3. How do you respond to this vision of the Bible as a library full of difference of opinion, yet carrying on an essential conversation about what it means to be alive? Which set of voices do you identify with most – priests, prophets, poets, sages or storytellers?

4. For children: What’s one of your favourite stories – one that you like to hear again and again? What’s your favourite thing about that story?

5. Activate: This week, listen for voices who fit in the tradition of the priests, prophets, poets, sages and storytellers in today’s culture. See if you perceive points of agreement and disagreement with their counterparts in the biblical library.

6. Meditate: In silence, imagine hearing a vigorous conversation going on. Then let the conversation gradually fade away so that silence envelops you. In that silence, open your heart to God’s wisdom.

Chapter 12

elijah-was-taken-up-into-heaven-in-a-chariot-of-fire-and-horses-of-fire.jpg

Chapter 12

Stories That Shape Us

2 Kings 2:1–15
Psalm 23

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.
Acts 1:1–11


A little girl once asked her mother if the Bible story of Elijah flying to heaven on a chariot of fire was ‘real or pretend’. How would you have answered her question?

You might try to explain that sometimes a ‘pretend’ story can tell more truth and do more good than a ‘real’ one – as Jesus’ parables exemplify so powerfully. You might explain how real stories are often embellished with pretend elements. Or you might respond as that little girl’s wise mother did: ‘That’s a great question! Some stories are real, some are pretend, and some of the very best ones use a mix of both reality and make-believe to tell us something important. What do you think about the Elijah story?’ The mother’s answer didn’t tell the little girl what to think. It invited her to think – as a bona fide member of the interpretive community.

Whenever we engage with the stories of the Bible, we become members of the interpretive community. And that’s a big responsibility, especially when we remember how stories from the Bible have been used to promote both great good and great harm. We might say that good interpretation begins with three elements: science, art and heart. First, we need critical or scientific research into history, language, anthropology and sociology to interpret the Bible wisely. Second, since the Bible is a literary and therefore an artistic collection, we need an artist’s eye and ear to draw meaning wisely from ancient stories. But at every step, we must also be guided by a humble, teachable heart that listens for the voice of the Spirit.

In that light, the Elijah story addresses an urgent question: What happens when a great leader dies? Typically, a blaze of glory surrounds the hero’s departure – symbolised by the fiery chariot and horses in the story. After the leader is gone, the actual life and message of the leader are forgotten, obscured by the blaze of fame and glory. People become fans of the leader’s reputation, but not followers of his example. That’s why the old mentor Elijah puts his young apprentice Elisha through many trials and warns him about the spectacle surrounding his departure. The fireworks are not the point, Elijah explains; they’re a distraction, a temptation to be overcome. If the apprentice resists that distraction and remains resolutely focused on the mentor himself, a double portion of the mentor’s spirit will rest on him.

We see something very similar in the story of Jesus’ departure. Will his followers look up at the sky and speculate about their departed leader with their heads in the clouds? Will they be fans instead of followers? Or will they get down to work and stay focused on living and sharing Jesus’ down-to-Earth way of life, empowered with his Spirit?

Like young Elisha, interpreters today must remember that it’s easy to miss the point of ancient stories. Those stories didn’t merely aim, like a modern textbook, to pass on factual information.

They sought people’s formation by engaging their interpretive imagination.

As a first step in wisely interpreting Bible stories with science, art and heart, we need to put each in its intended historical context and get a sense for the big narrative in which each story is nested. Roughly speaking, we can locate the stories of Abraham and Sarah somewhere around 2000–1700 BC. We can place the stories of Moses and the Exodus around 1400 BC. We can locate the conquest of the Canaanites around 1300 BC, after which they formed a loose confederacy under a series of leaders who are somewhat misleadingly called judges in the Bible. Tribal leaders or even warlords might be more accurate names.

Those were violent times, and some of the stories from those times are bone-chilling, especially regarding the appallingly low status of women and the appallingly violent behaviour of men. For example, the book of Judges ends with the account of a brutal gang rape, murder and dismemberment of a young woman, followed by a horrific aftermath of intertribal retaliation and kidnapping of innocent young women. Interestingly, in the very next story in the biblical library, the book of Ruth, we find the polar opposite – the poignant tale of two kind and courageous women, Ruth and Naomi. They forged a resilient life of dignity and beauty in the midst of brutality. Where the men failed, the women prevailed.

Around 1050 BC, pressured by aggressive nations around them and brutality among them, the twelve tribes formed a stronger alliance. They united under a king named Saul. Saul turned out to be a disappointment, but in his shadow a more heroic figure named David appeared. The story of David’s gradual rise from shepherd boy to king unfolds in great detail, each episode revealing Saul as less strong and noble and David as more clever and charismatic. When Saul was killed in battle, David established his throne in Jerusalem, inaugurating what is still remembered as Israel’s golden age.

David was heroic, but far from perfect, and the Bible doesn’t cover up his serious failings – including those of a sexual nature. When David wanted to build a temple to honour God, God said ‘no’: a place of worship should not be associated with a man of bloodshed. David’s son Solomon was not a warrior, so he was allowed to fulfil his father’s dream by building a temple. But Solomon used slave labour to build that temple – a tragic irony in light of God’s identity as the liberator of slaves.

After Solomon’s death, around 930 BC, the kingdom split in two. Ten of the original twelve tribes who lived in the northern region broke away from the two tribes who lived to their south. From that time, the Kingdom of Israel in the north, with its capital in Samaria, was governed by its own line of kings. And the Kingdom of Judah in the south continued under the rule of David’s descendants in Jerusalem. Nearly all the kings of both nations were corrupt, ineffective and faithful only to their own agendas of gaining and maintaining power at any cost.

Those darker times made the memory of David’s reign seem all the more bright. A dream was born in many hearts: that a descendant of David would one day arise and come to the throne, inaugurating a new kingdom, a new golden age, a new day. The old dream of a promised land now was replaced by a new dream – of a promised time, a time when the peace, unity, freedom and prosperity of David’s reign would return. This expectation kept hope alive in difficult times, but it also created a sense of pious complacency.

That was what Jesus encountered centuries later. Many were still waiting for a ‘son of David’, a militant Messiah, to swoop in one day, fix everything and usher in Golden Age 2.0. They expected this warrior king to raise a revolutionary army, overthrow their oppressors and restore civil law and religious order. In anticipation of the warrior king’s arrival, some were sharpening daggers and swords. But Jesus was living by a different interpretation of the old stories, so he refused to conform to their expectations. Instead of arming his followers with daggers, swords, spears, chariots and war horses, he armed them with faith, hope, service, forgiveness and love. When he healed people, he didn’t tell them, ‘I will save you!’ or ‘My faith will save you!’ but ‘Your faith has saved you.’ Working from a fresh interpretation of the past, he freed them from both passive, pious complacency and desperate, violent action. His fresh interpretation empowered them for something better: faithful, peaceful action.

That’s the kind of empowerment we need to face our huge challenges today. How will we deal with political and economic systems that are destroying the planet, privileging the super-elite and churning out weapons of unprecedented destruction at an unprecedented rate? How will we deal with religious systems that often have violent extremists on one wing and complacent hypocrites on the other? How will we grapple with complex forces that break down family and community cohesion and leave vulnerable people at great risk – especially women, and especially the very young and the very old? How will we face our personal demons – of greed, lust, anxiety, depression, anger and addiction – especially when people are spending billions to stimulate those demons so we will buy their products?

These aren’t pretend problems. To find real-world solutions, we need to be wise interpreters of our past. Like Elijah’s apprentice Elisha, we must stay focused on the substance at the centre, undistracted by all the surrounding fireworks.

Because the meaning we shape from the stories we interpret will, in turn, shape us.

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate & Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a ‘golden age’ you learned about in your family, your school or some other group you’ve been part of.

3. How do you respond to the comparison between the story of Jesus’ departure in Acts and the story of Elijah’s departure in 2 Kings?

4. For children: Do you have a favourite superhero? Tell us why you like him or her so much.

5. Activate: This week, try to read the gruesome story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19 – 21) and then the gentle story of Ruth and Naomi (book of Ruth). Do you see similar stories in this week’s headlines?

6. Meditate: In silence, hold the phrases ‘passive, pious complacency’, ‘desperate, violent action’ and ‘faithful, peaceful action’ in your mind for a few minutes. Ask God to make you an agent of faithful, peaceful action.

Chapter 11

dikaseva-34881.jpg

Chapter 11

From Ugliness, a Beauty Emerges

Deuteronomy 7:1–11
Psalm 137:1–9; 149

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept... For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth... Matthew 15:21–39


We’ve come a long way in our story already. We’ve discovered . . .

Creation – God brings into being this beautiful, evolving world of wonders.

Crisis – we step out of the dance and enter into rivalry with God and our fellow creatures, throwing this planet into disarray.

Calling – God calls people to join in a global conspiracy of goodness and blessing, to heal and restore whatever human evil destroys.

Captivity – the people who have joined God’s global conspiracy of goodness experience the horrors of slavery, but God eventually leads them by the wilderness road out of captivity towards freedom.

And now we come to a fifth major episode. It’s the story of conquest, as the Israelites finally reach the land their ancestors had inhabited four centuries earlier. There’s just one problem: others have moved into the land and made it their home for many generations. To possess the land, the Israelites will have to displace these current residents through a war of invasion and conquest. Wars like these are the most bloody and difficult of all, but the Israelites trust that their God will give them victory.

This episode in the biblical story, more than any other, forces us to deal with one of life’s most problematic questions: the question of violence. By violence, we mean an act that intends to violate the well-being of a person or people. To help some, is God willing to harm others? Is God part of the violence in the world, and is violence part of God?

Or is God the voice calling to us in our violence to move to a new place, to join God beyond violence, in kindness, reconciliation and peace?

Today, as in the ancient world, many people sincerely believe that God loves us and wants peace for us so much that God has no trouble harming or destroying them for our benefit. We find a lot of that kind of thinking in the Bible, giving God credit and praise for our victories and their defeats. Before we go too far in condemning ancient people for that exclusive way of thinking, we should realise how easy it is for us to do the same – when we create a superior us that looks down on them for thinking so exclusively!

We should also notice that where we see this kind of thinking embedded in the Bible, we also find important qualifications. For example, God’s favour towards the insiders is dependent on the insiders living good and humble lives. If the insiders become oppressors, they should not expect God’s help. And God gives the freed slaves the right to conquer just enough land for themselves, just one time. They are never given a licence to create an empire, expanding to enslave others as they had previously been enslaved.

Even as they prepare for war, they are told again and again that after the conquest ends, they must treat ‘aliens and strangers’ as neighbours, with honour and respect, remembering that they once were ‘aliens and strangers’ themselves in Egypt. Their ultimate dream is to be farmers, not warriors – so that swords can be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, as soon as possible.

But even with these provisos in mind, we can’t ignore the brutality found in many Bible passages. From Deuteronomy 7 to Leviticus 25 to 1 Samuel 15 to Psalms 137 and 149, we hear claims that ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’ actively commands or blesses actions that we would call crimes against humanity. Many religious scholars have assumed that because the Bible makes these claims, we must defend them as true and good. Fortunately we have another, better option.

We can acknowledge that in the minds of the originators of these stories, God as they understood God did indeed command these things. We can acknowledge that in their way of thinking, divine involvement in war was to be expected. We can allow that they were telling the truth as they best understood it when they found comfort and reassurance in a vision of a God who would harm or kill them to defend, help or avenge us. We can try to empathise, remembering that when human beings suffer indignity, injustice, dehumanisation and violence, they naturally pray for revenge and dream of retribution against those who harm them. Without condoning, we can at least understand why they saw God as they did, knowing that if we had walked in their sandals, we would have been no different.

But we don’t need to stop there. We can then turn to other voices in the biblical library who, in different circumstances, told competing stories to give a different – and we would say better – vision of God.

jerry-kiesewetter-195442.jpg

For example, take the passage in Deuteronomy 7 where God commands Joshua to slaughter the seven Canaanite nations. They must be shown no mercy. Even their little girls must be seen as a threat. Then we can consider a story from Matthew’s Gospel which offers itself as a response to the earlier passage. There we meet a woman who is identified by Matthew as a Canaanite. This identification is significant, since Canaanites no longer existed as an identifiable culture in Jesus’ day. Calling this woman a Canaanite would be like calling someone a Viking or Aztec today. She asks for the one thing that had been denied her ancestors: mercy . . . mercy for her daughter who is in great need.

Up until this point, Jesus has understood his mission only in relation to his own people. After all, they’re pretty lost and they need a lot of help. So he hesitates. How can he extend himself to this Canaanite? But how can he refuse her? In her persistence, he senses genuine faith, and he hears God’s call to extend mercy even to her. So he says ‘yes’ to the mother, and the daughter is healed. From there, Jesus goes to an area to the north-west of the Sea of Galilee. He teaches and heals a large crowd of people there who, like the woman and her daughter, are not members of his own religion and culture. Their non-Jewish identity is clear in their response to Jesus’ kindness: ‘And they praised the God of Israel.’ What was an exception yesterday is now the new rule: Don’t kill the other. Show mercy to them.

Then Jesus repeats a miracle for these outsiders that he had done previously for his fellow Jews, multiplying loaves and fish so they can eat. In the previous miracle, there were twelve baskets left over, suggesting the twelve tribes of Israel – the descendants, that is, of Jacob and his twelve sons. In this miracle, there are seven baskets left over – suggesting, it seems quite clear, the seven Canaanite nations that Jesus’ ancestors had been commanded to destroy.

Matthew’s version of this story makes a confession: Our ancestors, led by Moses and Joshua, believed God sent them into the world in conquest, to show no mercy to their enemies, to defeat and kill them. But now, following Christ, we hear God giving us a higher mission. Now we believe God sends us into the world in compassion, to show mercy, to heal, to feed – to nurture and protect life rather than take it.

We begin with pre-biblical visions of many warring gods who are all violent and capricious. In much of the Bible, we advance to a vision of a single God who uses violence against them in the service of justice for us. Eventually, through the biblical library, we find a beautiful new vision of God being revealed. God desires justice for all, not just for us. God is leading both us and them out of injustice and violence into a new way of reconciliation and peace. God loves everyone, everywhere, no exceptions.

Violence, like slavery and racism, was normative in our past and it is still all too common in the present. How will we tell the stories of our past in ways that make our future less violent? We must not defend those stories or give them the final word. Nor can we cover them up, hiding them like a loaded gun in a drawer that can be found and used to harm. Instead, we must expose these violent stories to the light of day. And then we must tell new stories beside them, stories so beautiful and good that they will turn us towards a better vision of kindness, reconciliation and peace for our future and for our children’s future.

The stories of Jesus’ life and teaching, wisely told, can help us imagine and create a more peaceful future.

They help us see the glory of God shining in the face of a kind, forgiving, gentle and non-violent man, and in the smiles and tears, words and deeds of those who radiate his love.

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate and Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a film you’ve seen or a book you’ve read that upheld violence as the way to prosperity and peace. Can you share an alternative film or story that pointed to a non-violent way to peace?
3. How do you respond to Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman in conversation with the Deuteronomy story of Canaanite slaughter? Can you think of other paired stories like this?
4. For children: Who do you think is stronger – a person who can punch a bad guy and scare him away, or a person who can convince a bad guy to become good?
5. Activate: This week, listen for situations when people use God (or some other ‘good reason’) to justify violence or unkindness. Try to understand why they would see God and violence this way. Seek to see the world through their eyes and to imagine how hard it would be for them to see God differently.
6. Meditate: Hold in silence the tension between a violent world and a God who calls us to reconciliation, mutual understanding and respect, and peace.

Chapter 10

kaley-dykstra-10484.jpg

Getting Slavery Out Of The People

Chapter 10

Exodus 20:1–21, Matthew 22:34–40, Hebrews 10:1–18

I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds . . .


Most of us spend a lot of our lives trying to get out of something old and confining and into something new and free. That’s why we so easily identify with Moses and the freed Hebrew slaves on their journey through the wild wasteland known as the wilderness.

The truth is that we’re all on a wilderness journey out of some form of slavery. On a personal level, we know what it is to be enslaved to fear, alcohol, food, rage, worry, lust, shame, inferiority or control. On a social level, in today’s version of Pharaoh’s economy, millions at the bottom of the pyramid work like slaves from before dawn to after dark and still never get ahead. And even those at the top of the pyramid don’t feel free. They wake up each day driven by the need to acquire what others desire, and they fear the lash of their own inner slave-drivers: greed, debt, competition, expectation and a desperate, addictive craving for more, more, more.

aj-colores-384538.jpg

'...the whole system survives by plundering the planet...'

From top to bottom, the whole system survives by plundering the planet, purchasing this generation’s luxuries at the expense of future generations’ necessities. Exiting from today’s personal and social slavery won’t be easy. It will require something like a wilderness journey into the unknown. We know who we have been: slaves. We know who we’re going to be: free men and women, experiencing aliveness as God intended. And right now, we’re a little bit of both, in need of the identity transformation that comes as we walk the road to freedom.

So we have much to learn from the stories of Moses and his companions. We too must remember that the road to freedom doesn’t follow a straight line from point A to point B. Instead, it zigzags and backtracks through a discomfort zone of lack, delay, distress and strain. In those wild places, character is formed – the personal and social character needed for people to enjoy freedom and aliveness. Like those who have walked before us, we need to know that grumbling and complaining can be more dangerous than poisonous snakes or the hot desert sun. Like them, we must be forewarned about the danger of catastrophising the present and romanticising the past. Like them, we must remember that going forward may be difficult, but going back is disastrous.

As they made a road through the wilderness, Moses and his fellow travellers received a mysterious food that fell from the sky each morning like dew. They called it manna, which in Hebrew, somewhat humorously, meant, ‘What is this stuff?’ Like them, we will receive what we need for each day, too – often in mysterious and sometimes even humorous ways, just enough for today, provided one day at a time. And like them, we will learn that we can’t survive on bread alone: we also need moral guidance, spiritual nourishment, manna for the soul.

So along with bread for their bodies, God gave the travellers inner nourishment in the form of ten commands that would become the moral basis for their lives in freedom.

1. Put the God of liberation first, not the gods of slavery.

2. Don’t reduce God to the manageable size of an idol – certainly not one made of wood and stone by human hands, and not one made by human minds of rituals and words either, and certainly not one in whose name people are enslaved, dehumanised or killed!

3. Do not use God for your own agendas by throwing around God’s holy name. If you make a vow in God’s name, keep it!

4. Honour the God of liberation by taking and giving everyone a day off. Don’t keep the old 24/7 slave economy going.

5. Turn from self-centredness by honouring your parents. (After all, honour is the basis of freedom.)

6. Don’t kill people, and don’t do the things that frequently incite violence, including:

7. Don’t cheat with others’ spouses,

8. Don’t steal others’ possessions, and

9. Don’t lie about others’ behaviours or characters.

10. In fact, if you really want to avoid the violence of the old slave economy, deal with its root source – in the drama of desire. Don’t let the competitive desire to acquire tempt you off the road of freedom.

Through the ten plagues, we might say, God got the people out of slavery. Through the ten commands, God got the slavery out of the people. God also gave them a set of additional practices – rituals, holidays and so on – to help them develop and deepen the character of free people. One of those practices was setting aside a special holy place. They started with a simple ‘tent of meeting’ that was replaced by a larger, more elaborate gathering place called the ‘tabernacle’. That holy space in the centre of their encampment reminded them that the God of liberation was journeying with them – not only above them, visualised as a cloud of smoke and fire, but among them, walking with them in the desert dust as they made the road to freedom.

In that central holy space the people offered sacrifices. Animal sacrifice had already replaced more primitive and brutal rituals of human sacrifice. But the whole idea of appeasing God through blood-shedding of any kind was gradually being replaced with the idea of communing with God over a meal. So sacrifices were seen increasingly as gifts of food, as if to say, ‘God is calling us to gather around the family table.’ At certain times of the year, and at special moments when the people realised they had done something horrible, they would come to God’s big tent. They would bring the makings of a feast, as if to say, ‘God, we’re sorry for our wrongs. We want to have our family meal again – reconciling with you and with one another. So here’s some food to express our desire to sit down at the table of fellowship. We won’t turn back. We’ll keeping walking this long road to freedom . . . together.’

Of course, Jesus gathered his companions around a table one night and encouraged them to do the same. We call it a meal of communion. We could also call it a meal of liberation and reconciliation. Around this table, we remember where we’ve been, where we are, whom we’re with and where we’re headed, as we make a new road by walking . . . together.

The wilderness journey is always difficult and seems to last for ever. Like children on a car journey, we keep whining, ‘Aren’t we there yet?’ But the truth is, if we arrive before we’ve learned the lessons of the wilderness, we won’t be able to enjoy the freedom that awaits us in the promised land beyond it. There is wisdom we will need there that we can gain only right here. There is strength and skill we will need in the future that we can develop only here and now, on the wilderness road. There is moral muscle we will need then that we can exercise and strengthen only through our struggles on this road, here and now. There is a depth of connection with God that will be there when we need it in the future – if we learn to trust and follow God now, on the long wild road to freedom.

The struggles will make us either bitter or better. The trials will lead to either breakdown or breakthrough. We will often be tempted to return to our old lives, but in that tension between a backward pull and a forward call, we will discover unexplainable sustenance (like manna) and unexpected refreshment (like springs in the desert). Against all odds, walking by faith, we will survive – and more: we will learn what it means to be alive.

There are no shortcuts. The road cannot be made by wishing, by whining or by talking. It can be made only by walking, day after day, step by step, struggle by struggle. It’s easier, it turns out, to get people out of slavery than it is to get slavery out of people. So, people, let us walk the road – right through the middle of the desert.

engage.jpg

Engage

Meditate and Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a significant wilderness experience in your life – either literal or figurative.

3. What do you think it means in today’s world to ‘get the slavery out of the people’? What kinds of slavery do you think we are still stuck in?

4. For children: What’s the longest trip you’ve ever taken? What was one of the best parts of the trip? What was one of the worst parts?

5. Activate: Each day this week, reread the ten commandments as worded in this chapter. (Maybe send them to yourself and others via e-mail or social media.) Look for ways this ancient moral code is relevant in today’s world – and in your life.

6. Meditate: Relax for a few moments in God’s presence in silence. Think of the Sabbath not as being deprived of activity, but as a day of liberation from the 24/7 work-week of a slave. Breathe deep. Let go. Thank God for rest.

Chapter 9

mohamed-nohassi-229698.jpg

Chapter 9

Freedom!

Exodus 1:1–14; 3:1–15

I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings . . .

John 8:1–11
Galatians 5:1, 13–15


Slavery was a sad and common reality in the ancient world. There were at least four ways that people became slaves. First, when people suffered a terrible misfortune like sickness, accident, flood, debt, theft or famine, they could quickly find themselves in danger of death by starvation or homelessness. In that desperate situation, they might be forced to sell themselves into slavery, under the simple reasoning that being a live slave was better than being a dead non-slave. Second, when nations won a war, they often killed off all their vanquished enemies. But some nations decided to keep their defeated foes alive as slaves instead of killing them. Third, refugees or other vulnerable minorities might be enslaved by the dominant majority. Finally, babies born to slaves were destined to be slaves.

That was what happened to the descendants of Abraham between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus in the Bible. As Genesis ended, Joseph had welcomed his brothers into Egypt as refugees to escape a famine in their land to the north. Finding refuge solved the famine problem, but refugee and minority status made them vulnerable to enslavement.

As Exodus begins, the Hebrews, as Abraham’s descendants were then called, have been enslaved. And they have also grown in numbers, so much so that the Egyptians have begun to fear that they might rebel. In response, the Egyptian ruler, the Pharaoh, calls for a gradual genocide by decreeing that all the male babies born to the Israelite slaves be thrown into the River Nile to drown. You can see how this strategy would leave the next generation of Hebrew women either barren or vulnerable to sexual enslavement by Egyptian men. After one generation, no more ‘pure’ Hebrews would be born.

aaron-burden-307060.jpg

'...God gets involved by challenging us to get involved.'

Often in the Bible, when there is a big problem God prepares a person or people to act as God’s partners or agents in solving it. In other words, God gets involved by challenging us to get involved. In this case, God prepared a man named Moses. Moses was one of the babies whom the Pharaoh required to be drowned in the Nile.

His mother came up with a creative way to save his life. She placed him in the Nile as required, but first she put baby Moses in a little raft of reeds. His raft floated downstream, where it was found by one of Pharaoh’s daughters. She felt sorry for the little baby and decided to raise him as her own. So this vulnerable slave boy was adopted into the privileged household of Pharaoh – and to top it off, Moses’ own mother was hired to be the wet nurse. Quite a turn of events! Now Moses could live happily ever after, right?

Not quite. The good news was that Moses survived. The bad news? Moses grew up with an identity crisis. He was an Israelite by birth but an Egyptian by culture. So a huge question was hanging over him as he matured: on whose side would he stand when he came of age? As a young man, his moment of decision came when he saw an Egyptian beating up an Israelite. He stood up for the Israelite and killed the Egyptian oppressor. Now he had made his choice. But to his surprise, his kinfolk didn’t welcome him as a hero. Instead, when he tried to intervene in a quarrel between two Israelites, they distrusted him. So he went from belonging to both sides to being considered an outsider by both sides.

In disgrace, he ran away from Egypt and came to an oasis in the desert. There, he saw a group of male shepherds drive away some girls from a well. Now, sensitised to the victims of oppression, he stood up for the girls. Their father was so grateful that he welcomed Moses into his family, and Moses married one of the daughters he had helped protect. Finally Moses had a place to belong, right? Now he could settle down and be happy, right? They lived happily ever after, right? Not quite.

Imagine the scene: Moses is out tending sheep one day and something strange catches his attention: a bush is on fire, but it’s not burning up. When Moses comes closer to check it out, he hears a voice calling his name. It’s God – and God is telling him to go back to Egypt, confront Pharaoh about his exploitation of the Israelites, and lead them on a long road to freedom.

Moses feels he has already failed at helping the Israelites, so it takes some persuasion for him to agree to accept this mission. But finally he goes, supported by his older brother, Aaron. They confront Pharaoh with the message: ‘God says, “Let my people go!”’ Predictably, Pharaoh refuses. So God sends plagues as pressure on Pharaoh, as if to say, ‘Oppressing others may seem like the easy road to riches, power and comfort, but there are high costs to following that road.’ After that cost is dramatised ten times through ten plagues, Pharaoh relents and tells the people they can leave. Now everything will be fine, right? Happily ever after, right?

Not quite. Soon after saying ‘yes’ to Moses, Pharaoh has second thoughts and sends his army to pursue the Israelites and bring them back into slavery.

So Moses and the Israelites find themselves trapped between the Egyptian army and a huge body of water. At the last minute, God opens up a path through the water and the Israelites escape. When Pharaoh’s army follows, the path closes and they all drown. The fate they had planned for the Israelite babies now becomes their own fate. Surely now there will be a happy ending for the former slaves, right? Not quite.

If you’re looking for a thirty-minute story with a happy ending every time, it’s hard to find in the Bible – just as it is in real life. Instead, we discover the presence of God with us in our troubles, helping us deal with them, helping us discover solutions to them, helping us deal with the new problems inevitably created by those solutions, and so on. Through it all, we discover God’s faithful desire to help the downtrodden, the oppressed, the exploited and the forgotten.

Burning-Bush-Mosaic-II_art.jpg

'We’re all like Moses in a lot of ways. We all have choices to make...'

We’re all like Moses in a lot of ways. We all have choices to make – who we will become, whose side we’ll stand on, whether we’ll give up after our failures and frustrations, whether we’ll have the faith to get up and keep moving forward when we sense God’s call. Life may not be easy – but it can certainly be an exciting path to walk, if we go through life with God!

The story of Moses and the escape, or exodus, from Egypt glows at the core of the whole biblical story. It makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims: God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners! God doesn’t uphold an unjust status quo, but works to undermine it so that a better future can come. That revolutionary message is still unknown or rejected in much of the world today. If you believe it, you will live one way. If you don’t, you’ll live another way. Jesus, as one of the descendants of those slaves, was formed in this story of liberation.

Every year he gathered around a table to remember these events and to situate his life in the ongoing march from slavery and into freedom. All who ate that Passover meal, as it was called, were demonstrating that they were not part of the slave-owning economy, but were among those seeking freedom from it. They wanted God’s judgement to pass over them – which is the source of the meal’s name, Passover – so they could pass over from slavery to freedom. As part of this community, united in this meal, Jesus learned a profound way of seeing God and others. Where others used their gods to defend an unjust status quo, Jesus believed in the God of justice and liberation. Where others saw a worthless slave, an exploitable asset, a damnable sinner, a disgusting outsider, Jesus saw someone to set free.

The night before his crucifixion, Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover meal. He urged his disciples to keep doing so – not just annually, but frequently, and not just in memory of Moses in ancient Egypt, but also in memory of his own life and message. That’s why followers of Jesus continue to gather around a simple meal of bread and wine today. By participating in that meal, we are making the same choice Moses made – and the same choice Jesus made: to join God in the ongoing struggle to be free and to set others free.

That’s what it means to be alive in God’s story of creation and non-violent liberation. It’s a road into the wild, a road we make by walking

jeremy-bishop-293927.jpg

Engage

Meditate and Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time you took the side of a vulnerable person, or the time you were the vulnerable person and others took your side . . . or didn’t.

3. Name the Hebrew slaves of today’s world. Who today is being exploited and crying out for help? Who does back-breaking work for which others reap the rewards? How can we join in solidarity with them, seeking liberation?

4. For children: What’s your favourite meal and what do you like most about it? What special meaning does that meal have for you?

5. Activate: This week, seek to have ‘Moses eyes’ – looking for people who are being oppressed or mistreated. Be open to ways God may call you to intervene.

6. Meditate: Hold this question open before God: ‘Loving Creator, help my small heart to join your great heart in having compassion for those most in need.’

Chapter 8

wall

Rivalry or Reconciliation?

Chapter 8

Genesis 32:22 – 33:11; 50:15–21
Matthew 25:31–40
Luke 10:25–37
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.


If you had siblings, how did you get along? The book of Genesis is full of stories of brothers and sisters in competition and conflict. After the tragic story of Cain and Abel, we come to the story of Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was Abraham’s first son, born not to his wife Sarah but to her Egyptian slave Hagar. According to Genesis, there was a bitter rivalry between the two mothers and their two sons. Hagar and Ishmael were treated terribly, while Sarah and Isaac were given every advantage. God intervened and made it clear that even if Abraham and Sarah failed to love Hagar and Ishmael, God cared for them deeply.

Years later, Abraham’s grandson Jacob was caught up in bitter sibling rivalry with his older twin brother, Esau. At the heart of their conflict was the belief that God loved Jacob and hated Esau. Based on this belief that he was uniquely favoured, Jacob felt entitled to take advantage of everyone around him, especially his disfavoured brother Esau. He seemed to get away with his trickery again and again until, eventually, Esau grew so angry at Jacob that Jacob had to flee for his life. For many years, the two brothers lived far apart, maturing, but still alienated from each other. During this time, Jacob married two sisters – a favoured one named Rachel and a disfavoured one named Leah. Leah became the mother of six of Jacob’s twelve sons, so her story had a happier ending than anyone expected.

After he became a rich and successful man, Jacob began a homeward journey. He learned that the next day he would be forced to encounter the brother he had wronged in so many ways so many years before. You can imagine how afraid he was. He had lived his whole life by trickery. Now his old tricks weren’t working any more. So all that night, he felt like he was in a wrestling match with God.

kat-love-328941.jpg

His sleepless night of inner wrestling seems like an image for the human struggle common to us all.

His sleepless night of inner wrestling seems like an image for the human struggle common to us all. Like Jacob, we wrestle to get our own way by trying to cheat or defeat anyone who has something we desire – including God. Like Jacob, we grapple with changing old habits, even when those habits aren’t working for us any more. Like Jacob, we agonise through the long night, held in a headlock by despair, fearing that it’s too late for us to hope for a new beginning. 

So hour after hour through the night, Jacob wrestled. When the new day dawned, he rose from the struggle with two signs of his emergence into maturity as a human being. First, he received the blessing of a new name, Israel, which means ‘God-wrestler’. And he received a hip injury that required him to walk with a limp, a lifelong memento of his long night of struggle.

Jacob was now ready – limping – to face his brother. Instead of trying to trick Esau as the old Jacob would have done, he sent Esau a huge array of gifts to honour him. When Jacob finally met Esau face to face, Esau had his chance. Now the older twin could finally get revenge on his upstart younger twin for all Jacob’s dirty tricks in the past.

Esau could treat Jacob to a taste of the disdain and contempt Jacob had repeatedly poured upon him. But Esau surprised everyone. He made it clear that he wasn’t holding a grudge. He desired no revenge, nor did he require any gifts or appeasement. He simply wanted to be reconciled.

Jacob was so touched that he said these beautiful words: ‘Truly, to see your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such grace.’ The upstart trickster had finally learned to see the face of God in the face of the one he formerly tricked and despised. He discovered God’s grace in the one he had always considered disgraced. In the face of the other, he rediscovered a brother. In the face of the one everyone assumed God hated . . . God had been revealed. What a story!

Even though Jacob learned an important lesson that day, sibling rivalry had a resurgence in the next generation. Jacob had twelve sons. One son, Joseph, was resented by his eleven brothers, because – as with Abel over Cain, Sarah over Hagar, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, and Rachel over Leah before him – Joseph was favoured over them. In fact, Joseph dreamed that one day his brothers would grovel before him.

Eventually, driven by the resentment of the disfavoured, they plotted to kill him. At the last minute, however, they decided to sell him as a slave to some Egyptian traders instead. Through a dramatic series of temptations, delays, setbacks and recoveries, Joseph rose from slavery to a place of honour in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Many years later, when a famine sent the brothers to Egypt as refugees, Joseph had his chance, just as Esau did: he could get revenge on those miserable brothers who had treated him so badly. He could do to them what they had done to him. But Joseph, like Esau, made a different choice – not for revenge, but for forgiveness. 

When his brothers grovelled before him, as Joseph had dreamed they would when he was a boy, and when they offered to be treated as slaves rather than brothers, Joseph didn’t gloat. He refused to play God, judge them evil and sentence them to death or enslavement. Instead, he reinterpreted the whole story of their relationship. Their evil intent had been overshadowed by God’s good intent, so that Joseph could save their lives. He had suffered and he had been blessed, he realised, for their benefit. So instead of imitating their resentful and violent example, he imitated the gracious heart of God. By refusing to play God in judging them, he imaged God in showing kindness to them. In this way, Joseph – the victim of mistreatment by his brothers – became the hero.

The one everyone cruelly rejected was the one whose kindness everyone needed. The one who was considered favoured wasn’t made superior so others could grovel before him; he was made strong so he could serve them.

In both of these stories of sibling rivalry, the rejected brother, the ‘other brother’, is the one in whose face the grace of God brightly shines.

These stories pulsate with some of the most powerful and radical themes of the Bible. Blessing, power or favour is not given for privilege over others, but for service for the benefit of others. The weaker brother or sister, the one who is deemed ugly or dull or disfavoured or illegitimate, is always beloved by God. From Abel to Ishmael to Hagar to Esau to Leah to Joseph, God keeps showing up, not in the victors who have defeated or exploited or rejected a weaker rival, but in the weaker ones who have been defeated or rejected.

These same themes are the heartbeat of two of Jesus’ greatest parables. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father who runs out to welcome his runaway younger son behaves exactly as Esau did – running to him, embracing him, kissing him, showing grace rather than retaliation. And he acts just as Joseph did, as well, not making the runaway grovel as a slave, but welcoming him as a beloved member of the family. And in the parable of the good Samaritan, it is the disfavoured Samaritan, not the high-status priest or Levite, who models the love of God.

As in Genesis, life today is full of rivalries and conflicts. We all experience wrongs, hurts and injustices through the actions of others – and we all inflict wrongs, hurts and injustices upon others. If we want to reflect the image of God, we will choose grace over hostility, reconciliation over revenge, equality over rivalry. When we make that choice, we encounter God in the face of our former rivals and enemies. And as we are humbled, surrendering to God and seeking to be reconciled with others, our faces too reflect the face of God.

We come alive as God’s image-bearers indeed.

jeremy-bishop-293927.jpg

Engage

Meditate and Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about how a conflict or rivalry with a family member, friend or colleague challenged you to face yourself . . . and God.

3. Respond to the idea that in revenge, we seek to imitate the person who has wronged us, and that in reconciliation, we imitate and reflect God.

4. For children: Tell us about someone you had a chance to forgive.

5. Activate: This week, look for opportunities for others to ‘see the face of God’ in your face, and seek the face of God in their faces, too – especially those you may see as rivals or outcasts.

6. Meditate: In silence, ponder forgiveness, and thank God for the joy of being forgiven – and for the release of forgiving others.

Chapter 7

baby

It's Not Too Late

Chapter 7

Genesis 18:9–33; 22:1–14
Micah 6:6–8

. . . what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Acts 17:19–34


Have you ever felt that it was too late? That things were so awful they could never get better, that you had failed so horribly and so often you could never, ever recover, that the situation was too far gone ever to be salvageable?

That was how Abram and Sarai felt at one point in their lives. Like many couples, they had dreamed all their lives of having children. But the years passed and no children came. They had received a promise from God that they would become a great family and that all people everywhere would be blessed through their descendants. But there was one problem: they had no descendants. When they were far too old to have children, you can imagine how they felt: it was just too late. Then they received reassurance from God that they would have a child. No wonder, according to the book of Genesis, that Sarai laughed when she first heard the promise!

However they felt at first, over time Abram and Sarai came to believe that what seemed impossible was possible after all. When that impossible baby was born, guess what they named him? They named him Isaac, which means ‘laughter’. And their names were changed, too, reflecting their new status as parents – from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah.

You might expect a happy ending at this point, but it was not that simple. Even after embarking on the adventure of faith, and even after becoming parents when it seemed too late, Abraham and Sarah faced another huge challenge.

Put yourself in their sandals. Imagine that you and everyone you know believes that God is a severe and demanding deity who can bestow forgiveness and other blessings only after human blood has been shed. Imagine how that belief in human sacrifice will affect the way you live, the way you worship and the way you treat others. Now imagine how hard it would be to be the first person in your society to question such a belief. Imagine how much courage it would take, especially because your blood might be the next to be sacrificed! Questioning widely held assumptions about God can be a dangerous venture indeed.

Cima_da_Conegliano,_God_the_Father.jpg

'Are we allowed to question or point out problems with these images and understandings that are widely held and emotionally comforting for many?'

But if our assumptions aren’t sometimes questioned, belief in God becomes less and less plausible. For example, biblical writers used the imagery of God sitting on a throne to express their belief that God was powerful and glorious, like an ancient king. Even though we may agree that God is powerful and glorious, does that mean we must believe that God’s power and glory are exactly like those of ancient kings – who could often be insecure, capricious, vain or vicious? Does it mean we must conclude that God has a literal gluteus maximus that rests on a really big chair floating up in the sky somewhere? Are we allowed to question or point out problems with these images and understandings that are widely held and emotionally comforting for many?

Perhaps we can agree that whoever and whatever God is, our best imagery can only point towards God like a finger. We can never capture God in our concepts like a fist. In fact, the more we know about God, the more we have to acknowledge we don’t know.

The bigger our understanding about God, the bigger the mystery that we must acknowledge. Our faith must always be open to correction, enhancement and new insight. That’s why humility is so essential for all who speak of God. Science faces a similar problem, by the way. Scientists have names for gravity and light and electricity and magnetism. But even though they have names for these realities, and even though they can create models and formulas to predict how they will work, what these forces really are remains a mystery. It’s pretty humbling when you think about it. That’s why, in the world of science, people are constantly questioning old assumptions and creating new theories or models. Scientists test and argue about those new theories and models until they are either confirmed or replaced with something even better.

The dominant theory of God in Abraham’s and Sarah’s day taught that the gracious God who gives human life would also demand human life as a sacrifice. So when Abraham believed God was commanding him to kill Isaac, he was being faithful to a traditional model of how God and life worked. We might wish that Abraham had argued over this theory, just as he did when he believed God was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. But strangely, what Abraham did for two cities he refrained from doing for his own son.

So, one day Abraham led Isaac up a mountain. He piled stones into an altar, tied up his son and placed him on the stones. He raised the knife, and once again it seemed too late. But at that last possible instant, Abraham saw a ram nearby, its horns stuck in a thicket. Suddenly he realised that God had provided a ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac, his son. What a powerful new insight! Animal blood could please or appease their God as a substitute for human blood!

It was commonplace in the ancient world for a man to lead his son up a mountain to be sacrificed to his deity. It was extraordinary for a man to come down the mountain with his son still alive. Through that ancient story, Abraham’s descendants explained why they had changed their theory or model of God, and why they dared to be different from their neighbours who still practised human sacrifice. It wasn’t too late to challenge widely held assumptions and change their theory of God! But they still weren’t finished. Many generations after ritualised human sacrifice was left behind for ever, prophets and poets arose among Abraham’s descendants who made the shocking claim that God doesn’t need animal sacrifices either. 

the-sacrifice-of-isaac-giovanni-battista-tiepolo.jpg

'...they realised God isn’t the one who is angry and hostile and needs appeasement.'

They realised that God could never need anything from us, since God provides everything for us. Not only that, but they realised God isn’t the one who is angry and hostile and needs appeasement. We humans are the angry ones! Our hostile, bloodthirsty hearts are the ones that need to be changed!

So over many centuries, led along by many teachers and prophets, Abraham’s descendants came to believe that God wanted one thing from humanity . . . not sacrifice, whether human or animal, but this: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God. The only sacrifice that mattered to God was the holy gift of humble hearts and lives dedicated to his way of love. So with faith, it’s not too late. It’s not too late for a dream to come true, and it’s not too late to learn something new.

That’s true for us today as we follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah, walking this road together. We’re still learning, rethinking, growing, discovering. In spite of long delays and many disappointments, will we dare to keep dreaming impossible dreams? 

In spite of the assumptions that everyone around us holds to be true, will we dare to ask new questions and make new discoveries – including lessons about God and what God really desires? It may seem as if it’s too late to keep hoping, to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep growing. But to be alive in the story of creation means daring to believe it’s not too late.

wave

Engage

Meditate and Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you almost gave up, but are glad you didn’t.

3. What are some critical issues in today’s world – or in our personal lives – where we might say ‘It’s too late’ or ‘It’s impossible’?

4. For children: What makes you laugh? Why do you think Sarah laughed in this story?

5. Activate: This week, try saying ‘It’s not too late’ when you’re tempted to be cynical or give up. Or practise the art of ‘the second laugh’. The first laugh comes as a reflex when we think something is impossible. The second laugh comes as a choice when we laugh at our lack of faith.

6. Meditate: After a few moments of silence, complete this sentence as your prayer: ‘Living God, it’s not too late to change my mind about . . .’

Chapter 6

walking

Plotting Goodness

Chapter 6

Genesis 12:1–9

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing . . .

Galatians 3:6–9
Mark 11:15–19


According to the ancient stories of Genesis, God is up to something surprising and amazing in our world. While we’re busy plotting evil, God is plotting goodness. Yes, sometimes we humans try to rope God into our dark plots and use God to help us scramble to the top of the pyramid, where we can dominate over others. Yes, we sometimes try to enlist God to condemn those we want to condemn, deprive those we want to deprive, even kill those we want to kill. But God isn’t willing to be domesticated into our little tribal deity on a leash who will attack our enemies on our command. While we plot ways to use God to get blessings for ourselves, God stays focused on the big picture of blessing the world – which includes blessing us in the process.

You see this pattern unfold when God chooses a man named Abram and a woman named Sarai. They are from a prominent family in a great ancient city-state known as Ur, one of the first ancient Middle Eastern civilisations. Like all civilisations, Ur has a dirty little secret: its affluence is built on violence, oppression and exploitation. Behind its beautiful facade, its upper classes live each day in luxury, while its masses slave away in squalor.

God tells this couple to leave their life of privilege in this great civilisation. He sends them out into the unknown as wanderers and adventurers. No longer will Abram and Sarai have the armies and wealth and comforts of Ur at their disposal. All they will have is a promise – that God will be with them and show them a better way. 

bruno-nascimento-249211.jpg

'From now on, they will make a new road by walking.'

From now on, they will make a new road by walking.

God’s promise comes in two parts. In the first part, Abram and Sarai will be blessed. They will become a great nation, and God will bless those who bless them and curse those who curse them. That’s the kind of promise we might expect. It’s the second part that’s surprising.

Not only will they be blessed, but they will be a blessing. Not only will their family become a great nation, but all the families on Earth will be blessed through them.

This is a unique identity indeed. It means the children of Abram and Sarai will be a unique us in relation to all the other thems of the world. No, their identity will not be us at the top of the pyramid and them at the bottom, or vice versa. Nor will their identity be us assimilated into them, or us assimilating them into us. Nor will it be us against them, us apart from them, or us in spite of them. No, Abram and Sarai’s unique identity will be us for them, us with them, us for the benefit and blessing of all.

That ‘otherly’ identity – us for the common good – wasn’t intended only for Abram’s and Sarai’s clan. It is the kind of identity that is best for every individual, every culture, every nation, every religion. It says, ‘We’re special!’ But it also says, ‘They’re special, too.’ It says, ‘God has a place for us and a plan for us.’ But it also says, ‘God has a place and plan for others, too.’ When we drift from that high calling and start thinking only of me, only of our clan or our nation or our religion, our sense of identity begins to go stale and sour, even toxic.

So the story of Abram’s and Sarai’s unique identity tells us something powerful about God’s identity, too: God is not the tribal deity of one group of ‘chosen’ people. God is not for us and against all others. God is for us and for them, too. God loves everyone everywhere, no exceptions.

And this story also tells us something about true faith. Faith is stepping off the map of what’s known and making a new road by walking into the unknown. It’s responding to God’s call to adventure, stepping out on a quest for goodness, trusting that the status quo isn’t as good as it gets, believing a promise that a better life is possible.

True faith isn’t a deal where we use God to get the inside track or a special advantage or a secret magic formula for success. It isn’t a mark of superiority or exclusion. True faith is about joining God in God’s love for everyone. It’s about seeking goodness with others, not at the expense of others. True faith is seeing a bigger circle in which we are all connected, all included, all loved, all blessed. True faith reverses the choice that is pictured in the story of Adam and Eve. In that story, Adam and Eve want to set themselves above everyone and everything else. True faith brings us back down to Earth, into solidarity with others and with all creation.

940.jpg

'True faith is seeing a bigger circle in which we are all connected, all included, all loved, all blessed.

Sadly, for many people, faith has been reduced to a list. For some, it’s a list of beliefs: ideas or statements that we have to memorise and assent to if we want to be blessed. For others, it’s a list of dos and don’ts: rituals or rules that we have to perform to earn the status of being blessed. But Abram didn’t have much in the way of beliefs, rules or rituals. He had no Bibles, doctrines, temples, commandments or ceremonies. For him, true faith was simply trusting a promise of being blessed to be a blessing. It wasn’t a way of being religious: it was a way of being alive.

And so this story not only tells us something about God’s true identity and about the true nature of faith, it also tells us about true aliveness. If you scramble over others to achieve your goal, that’s not true aliveness. If you harm others to acquire your desire, that’s not true aliveness. If you hoard your blessings while others suffer in need, that’s not true aliveness. True aliveness comes when we receive blessings and become a blessing to others. It’s not a blessing racket – figuring out how to plot prosperity for me and my tribe. It’s a blessing economy where God plots goodness for all.

Like all of us, Abram and Sarai will lose sight of this vision of aliveness sometimes. But even when they lose faith, God will remain faithful. Through their mistakes and failures, they will keep learning and growing, discovering more and more of God’s desire to overflow with abundant blessing for all.

Are you ready to step out on the same journey of faith with Sarai and Abram? Will you join them in the adventure of being blessed to be a blessing? Are you ready to make the road by walking?

wave

Engage

Meditate and Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you observed or participated in a group that saw itself as blessed to the exclusion of others rather than for the blessing of others.

3. Where in today’s world do you see people practising the kind of ‘otherly’ identity to which God called Abram – ‘us for the sake of others’?

4. For children: Tell us about a grown-up or another child who often asks you to help him or her. How does helping someone make you feel?

5. Activate: Look for opportunities to ‘be a blessing’ to others this week. Come back with some stories to share.

6. Meditate: In silence, hold this truth in God’s presence: I am blessed to be a blessing.

Chapter 5

sea

In Over Our Heads

Chapter 5

Genesis 4:1–17; 6:5–8; 7:1–5; 8:1; 9:7–17

Psalm 51

James 4:1–8


Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?

In the ancient Genesis stories, our species was created in the image of God – to reflect God’s character faithfully in the world, both to our fellow creatures and to one another.

Soon, though, we wanted to be little gods ourselves. We wanted to judge good and evil for ourselves, to decide who would live and who would die, who would rule and who would be enslaved. Consumed by the desire to grasp what others had, we became rivals of God and our neighbours. That crisis of desire has led to great shame, pain, suffering, violence, counter-violence and fear... in our lives, our communities and our world. Today’s headlines tell the same story in a hundred different ways.

In the Genesis story, the descendants of Cain, the first murderer, started building cities, and those cities reflected the violence of Cain. As city-states competed with each other and defeated one another, the winners created growing empires that elevated a few to god-like status and reduced most to oppression and slavery. The situation became so unbearable that in the story of Noah and the flood, God felt sorry for making the world in the first place. Eventually God decided to wipe the whole slate clean and start again. Maybe Noah’s descendants would do better than Adam’s had.

Although many people think of this as a cute story about animals and a boat ride, those who think more deeply find it deeply disturbing. The image of violent oppressors and innocent victims drowning together seems only to make a bad situation worse. At the very least, one would think God would have more creativity, moral finesse and foresight than to create a good world only to destroy it because it went so bad so (relatively) quickly. Shouldn’t God be better than this?

storyteller1.jpg

'ancient cultures were oral cultures

To understand this story – and others like it – properly, we need to remember that ancient cultures were oral cultures. Few people were literate, and oral storytelling was to them what reading books, using the internet, going to concerts and watching films and TV shows are to us today. Ancient stories had a long life as oral compositions before they were ever written down. As oral compositions, stories could evolve over time. In a sense, writing them down ended their evolution.

For ancient people in oral cultures, a story was like a hypothesis. A good and helpful story, like a tested hypothesis, would be repeated and improved and enhanced from place to place and generation to generation. Less helpful stories would be forgotten like a failed theory, or adjusted and revised until they became more helpful. Sometimes, competing stories would stand side by side like competing theories, awaiting a time when one would prevail – or both would fail, and a new story would arise with more explanatory power. In all these ways, storytelling was, like the scientific method, a way of seeking the truth, a way of grappling with profound questions, a way of passing on hard-won insights. As our ancestors deepened their understanding, their stories changed – just as our theories change.

In this light, we can reconsider the story of Noah as an adaptation of even older stories from the Middle East. In one of those earlier versions, a gang of gods unleashed a catastrophic flood as a personal vendetta against some noisy people who kept the gods awake at night. Ancient Jewish storytellers would have found that story repulsive. So they adapted it to reveal more of God’s true character, replacing many vindictive gods who were irritable from lack of sleep with one Creator who unleashes a flood to flush out human violence.

That’s certainly a step in the right direction, but the process doesn’t need to end with the Noah story. After all, God’s violence doesn’t really solve anything in the Noah story, since Noah’s family quickly starts cooking up more trouble so that soon things are just as bad as they were before the flood. Again, we can’t help but wonder, shouldn’t God be better than that? To answer that question, we need to bring in another story. Later in Genesis, in the story of Joseph, God responds to violence in a very different way – not with more violence, but with kindness. Another big step in the right direction!

31402-babel 2.jpg

'The ancient world was filled with huge structures...'

We see the same pattern in the story of the Tower of Babel. The ancient world was filled with huge structures – towers and pyramids and temples and the like – that were built with slave labour. Just about everyone in those days assumed that the gods chose a few high-echelon people to sit pretty at the top of the pyramid. The masses were destined to be slaves at the bottom, sweating to make bricks or haul stones or irrigate fields so that the elite could have a nice day. Everyone assumed that the gods supported these slave-based economies of empire, and everyone understood that the towers, pyramids and temples both pleased and honoured the gods of the status quo.

But in the Tower of Babel story, the storytellers realise that the living God must be better than that. So in their story, tower-building is exposed as another form of rivalry with God. God opposes their soaring ambition of assimilation and domination. God diversifies the languages of the Babylonian Empire so that its ambition of global empire fails, memorialised for ever in an unfinished tower. This new version of an old story is a big step in the right direction. Later, when we come to the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, we’ll see another giant step forward, revealing God even more beautifully and fully.

As we progress through the biblical library, these stories interact with one another again and again. Together they reveal an ever fuller and deeper vision of God. We come to know a God who consistently refuses to support a pyramid economy with a few at the top and the masses at the bottom. We come to trust a God who consistently opposes the oppressors and consistently takes the side of the humble, the vulnerable and the poor. We eventually come to understand God as one who consistently prefers non-violence over violence, equality over dominance and justice over injustice. Taken together, these stories make one of the most audacious claims in all of history: the living God doesn’t uphold the status quo . . . but repeatedly disrupts it and breaks it open so that something better can emerge and evolve.

Do you see what’s happening? Generation after generation, people are telling stories that improve upon previous stories and prepare the way for even better stories to emerge. The process leaps forward in the story of Jesus. He comes proclaiming the message of the commonwealth – or kingdom, or alternative economy – of God. He shows how in God’s way of arranging things, the last are first and the first are last.

Leaders serve, and the humble – not the arrogant – inherit the Earth. In word and deed, in parable and miracle, Jesus shows that God is at work in history to heal what is broken – on the personal level of individual lives, and on the societal level of economics and government too. And he proclaims God not as a reactive avenger who sweeps away the innocent with the guilty, but as a forgiving, merciful, gracious parent who loves all creation with a perfect, holy, faithful, compassionate love.

No wonder he told people to ‘repent’ – which means to ‘rethink everything’. No wonder he was known as a brilliantly creative and original storyteller. As with the parables of Jesus, the Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, flood and tower stories in Genesis don’t need to be factually true to tell an actual truth about us and our civilisation. Those ancient stories courageously expose how all civilisations were founded on violence and oppression, producing luxury and ease for a few but exhaustion and degradation for the many. They warn us that unjust structures are unsustainable. They advise that floods of change will sweep injustice away and internal conflicts will thwart arrogant ambitions. They promise that in the long run, justice and reconciliation will prevail over injustice and rivalry.

If we aren’t careful, we can grow comfortable and complacent with a status quo of injustice, oppression and violence. That’s why we are wise to gather often and retell these ancient stories. Rather than being conformed to this world and its mixed-up priorities, we can seek together to be transformed by a different and better story so we can join with God in the healing of our world. To be alive is to join God in caring about the oppressed, the needy, the powerless, the victims and the vulnerable. To be alive is to believe that injustice is not sustainable and to share God’s desire for a better world. To be alive is to look at our world and say, ‘God is better than that!’ – and know that our world can be better too. 

And so can we.

wave

Engage

Meditate and Contemplate

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story where you felt like someone at the top of the pyramid, or like someone at the bottom.

3. How do you respond to the comparison between stories and scientific theories, or to the distinction between factual and actual truth?

4. For children: Have you ever known a bully, or have you ever been a bully, or have you ever been bullied? Tell us about it.

5. Activate: Look for moments this week when it might be appropriate for you to say, ‘God must be better than that.’ And look for examples this week of the powerful exploiting the vulnerable when it might be appropriate for you to say, ‘We can be better than that.’

6. Meditate: Ask yourself, in God’s presence, ‘What desire to acquire may be driving me into trouble?’ After a few moments of silence, acknowledge the desires that come to mind. Then ask for other, better desires to replace the desire to acquire.

Chapter 4

tree

The Drama of Desire

Chapter 4

Genesis 3:1–13
. . . man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’
Psalm 32
Philippians 2:3–11


In the ancient wisdom of storytelling, Genesis tells us that we are part of God’s good creation. It then tells us we have a special responsibility as God’s reflections or image bearers.

It tells us that in order to reflect God’s image, we have to desire the Tree of Life, not the tree that feeds our pride so that we think we can play God and judge between good and evil.

Of course, we know what happened. The story of Adam and Eve doesn’t need to be about literal historical figures in the past to tell us something very true about us, our history and our world today. We humans have consistently chosen the wrong tree. Instead of imitating and reflecting God as good image-bearers should do, we start competing with God, edging God out, playing God ourselves. We reject the Creator and choose another model instead: a snake (the story says), who seems to represent a subtle and dangerous desire to choose rivalry and violence over harmony and well-being.

hide

'So they hide from God in fear.

In Genesis, after feeding on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve suddenly feel a change come over them. Perhaps they each fear that the other will judge them for being different, so they fashion crude clothing to hide their sexual differences. When God approaches, they no longer see God as a friend, but as a rival and threat. So they hide from God in fear. When God asks what has happened, they blame one another and refuse to admit their mistake. Soon they face a harder life of pain, competition, sweat, labour, frustration and death – east of Eden, outside the beautiful garden that was their home.

Later, their two sons repeat the pattern. The older brother – we might say he is ‘more advanced’ – becomes an agriculturalist. His life is wrapped up in fields, fences, ownership, barns and accumulated wealth, with all the moral complexity they bring. The younger brother – we might say he is ‘more vulnerable’ or ‘less developed’ – is a nomadic herdsman. He can’t own land or accumulate wealth, because he moves constantly with his herds to wherever the fresh grass is growing. Their different ways of life are expressed in different forms of religious sacrifice. They soon become religious rivals, competing for a higher degree of God’s favour. The perceived loser in the competition, Cain, envies and resents his brother.

Sometime later, we can imagine Abel leading his flocks into his brother’s field.At that moment Cain, his resentment simmering, no longer sees a brother: he sees a trespasser, an enemy. He plays God and judges his brother as evil and therefore worthy of death. Abel soon becomes the first victim of violence, and Cain the first murderer. So we humans quickly turn from reflecting the image of a creative, generous, life-giving God.

With Adam and Eve we become graspers, hiders, blamers and shamers. With Cain and Abel we become rivals, resenters, murderers and destroyers – the very opposite of God’s image.

What do these ancient stories mean for us today?

They help us know what’s broken with our world: something in us human beings. And they help us know what’s broken in human beings: something in our desires. And they help us know what’s broken with our desires: we have stopped imitating God’s good desires to create and bless and give life. Instead we’ve started imitating the prideful, competitive, fearful and harmful desires we see in one another . . . the desire to acquire what someone else has, the desire to compete and consume, the desire to judge as evil those who get in our way, even the desire to harm or kill those who are obstacles to our desires.

Think about how much imitation runs our lives.

violence

'Somebody hits or criticises you and what do you want to do?'

Somebody hits or criticises you and what do you want to do? Hit them back! Criticise them back! Somebody buys a new shirt or a new TV, and what do you want to do? Buy an even better shirt or bigger TV! Somebody moves to a bigger house in a different neighbourhood, and what do you desire? To get an even bigger house in an even better neighbourhood! And what happens if you can’t get what you desire? You’ll be tempted to cheat, steal, lie, harm or maybe even kill to get what you desire.

Now there’s nothing wrong with desire. The question is, whose desires are you imitating? To be alive is to imitate God’s generous desires . . . to create, to bless, to help, to serve, to care for, to save, to enjoy. To make the opposite choice – to imitate one another’s desires and become one another’s rivals – is to choose a path of death.

If we imitate our way into that rat race, we will compete rather than create, impress rather than bless, defeat rather than protect, dominate rather than serve, and exploit rather than respect. As a result, we will turn our neighbour first into a rival, and then an enemy, and then a victim.

We all live in this drama – the drama of desire. We have the opportunity to imitate God’s generous and good desires on the one hand – and we have the temptation to imitate selfish, fearful, envious human desires on the other hand.

Think of all the advertisers who are trying to influence our desires. Think of all the politicians who are eager to mould our desires so they can manipulate us for their advantage. Think of all the potential rivals who are glad to engage us in competition – their desires against ours. What’s true of us as individuals can also be true of us as groups – both personally and socially, we are caught in the drama of desire.

That’s another reason Jesus is so important to us: because he modelled a different way of life. He gave us a down-to-Earth example of God’s creative self-giving. True, Adam and Eve grabbed for the chance to be like gods – judging others as good or evil, exploiting rather than preserving the Earth, competing with one another rather than loving and serving one another. But Jesus didn’t grasp at god-like status. He humbly poured himself out for others – in service, in suffering, even to the point of death. He even gave us a way of remembering his attitude of self-giving: he said that his life was like food, like bread and wine, and he freely gave himself for us. His constant invitation – ‘Follow me’ – could also be expressed as ‘Imitate me’.

To be alive is to be mindful that we live in the drama of desire. We can imitate one another’s competitive desires, and so be driven to fear, rivalry, judging, conflict and killing. Or we can imitate God’s generous desires . . . to create, bless, help, serve, care for, save and enjoy. At this moment, let us turn towards God, not as rivals who want to play God, but as image-bearers who want to imitate and reflect God. Let us humbly and fervently desire the right kind of desire.

wave

Engage

Meditate and Contemplation

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about your interaction with someone you were jealous of or considered a rival. What did they have or desire that you desired? How did your relationship play out?

3. How do you respond to reading the Philippians 2 passage as a reversal of the Genesis 3 passage?

4. For children: How do you feel when you win or lose in a game? How do you feel when you do better or worse at something than someone else? Tell us a story about it.

5. Activate: Be especially sensitive to rivalry this week. When you feel it, ask what ‘desire to acquire’ is driving you. And ask whom you are imitating in this ‘desire to acquire’. In this way, seek to become more aware of the Cain and Abel struggling in your own life and heart.

6. Meditate: After a few moments of silence, let one emotion rise to the surface and express that emotion to God – and, if you’d like, to your companions, with a brief explanation.

Chapter 3

space

A World of Meaning

Chapter 3

Psalm 145:1–16
Proverbs 8:1–36
John 1:1–17
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 
The light shines in the darkness . . .


OK. Pay attention.

1, 6, 11, 16, 21, 26, 31... What comes next?

1, 4, 2, 5, 3, 6, 4, 7... What comes next?

1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34... What comes next?

I, space, L, O, V, E, space, Y, O... What comes next?

You know the answers because you are paying attention to the pattern.

It becomes more obvious the longer you live that all life is full of patterns. Reality is trying to tell us something. Life is speaking to us. There’s lots of mystery out there, to be sure, and no shortage of chaos and unpredictability. But there’s also lots of meaning... messages trying to find expression, music inviting us to listen and sing, patterns attracting our attention and interpretation. The chaos becomes a backdrop for the patterns, and the mysteries seem to beckon us to try to understand.

Sometimes the universe feels like this: 71, 6, 2, -48, -213, 9... random numbers with no pattern. Or... G, M, B, O, I, space, Q, H, Z, space, P... random letters with no meaning. Or... 1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1,1... sameness or repetition going nowhere. But above and behind and beyond the sometimes confusing randomness of life, something is going on here. From a single molecule to a strand of DNA, from a bird in flight to an ocean current to a dancing galaxy, there’s a logic, a meaning, an unfolding pattern to it all.

wood

'Like wood, reality has a grain. Like a river, it has a current.

Like wood, reality has a grain. Like a river, it has a current. Like a story, it has characters and setting and conflict and resolution. Like poetry, it has syntax and structure, so letters are taken up in words, and words are taken up in phrases and sentences, and they’re all taken up in a magnificent pattern of beauty and meaning that we can glimpse and savour, even if it’s too big and deep to comprehend fully. Creation reveals wisdom through its patterns. It reveals wisdom about its source and purpose, and about our quest to be alive... if we are paying attention.

Of course, we often struggle to know how to interpret those patterns. For example, if a tornado destroys our house, an enemy army drops bombs on our village, a disease takes away someone we love, we lose our job, someone we love breaks our heart, or our best friends betray us, what does that mean? Is the logic of the universe chaos or cruelty? Does might make right? Do violence and chaos rule? Is the Creator capricious, heartless and evil? If we had only our worst experiences in life to guide us, that might be our conclusion.

This is where the Gospel of John adds its insight to the creation stories we find in the book of Genesis. John had a special term for the pattern of meaning God has spoken or written into the universe. He called it Logos, which is often translated in English as ‘Word’. We find logos in words like biology, anthropology and psychology – the logic of life, human development or the human personality.

This Word or Logos, he said, was ‘made flesh’ in a man named Jesus. In other words, if we want to know what God is like and what the universe is about, we should pay attention to the logic, meaning, wisdom and patterns found in the life of Jesus. He communicated the logos, or logic, of God in his teachings. He lived the logos, or pattern, of God in his life. He showed the logos, or essence, of God in the way he treated others. From his birth to his death and beyond, John believes, Jesus translates the logic or meaning or pattern or heart of God into terms we humans can understand: skin and bone, muscle and breath, nerve and action.

field

'So, inspired by Genesis, we are guided to look for the pattern...'

So, inspired by Genesis, we are guided to look for the pattern, meaning, wisdom and logic of God woven into galaxies, planets, forests, fields, plants, animals, you and me.

In John’s Gospel, we are inspired to look for the pattern in a poor man travelling across the land with a band of students and friends, telling stories, confronting injustice, helping people in need. If we learn and trust the wisdom that comes in creation and in Jesus, we will live our lives in a new way, John says. We will discover God as our loving parent, and we will encounter all other creatures as our relations, our relatives, in one family of creation.

Of course, we have other options. For example, many of us live by the logic of rivalry. Under this logic, the cosmos is a huge battlefield or coliseum in which participants can survive only by competing, defeating, deceiving, displacing or killing their rivals. In this universe, the strongest survive, the ruthless are rewarded, the kind are killed and the meek are crushed. You’d better fight, or you’ll be trampled. Others of us live by the logic of compliance. Under this logic, the cosmos is a big organisation ruled by powerful bosses, and your job is to learn the rules and comply. Stay in your allotted place, do what you’re told, curry favour in the ‘inner circle’ of power, and the logic of compliance will work in your favour. You’d better play it safe, or you’ll get into a lot of trouble.

Still others of us think of the universe as a giant machine, and live by the logic of mechanism – action, reaction; cause, effect; stimulus, response. You can use the mechanisms of the universe to seek whatever pleasure, power and security you can during your short lives. But in the end, there is no meaning to the machine, so you’d better grab whatever moments of fleeting pleasure you can. That’s all there is or ever will be.

Clearly, the creation stories of Genesis and John offer us a powerful alternative to the logic of rivalry, the logic of compliance and the logic of meaningless mechanism.

They dare us to believe that the universe runs by the logic of creativity, goodness and love. The universe is God’s creative project, filled with beauty, opportunity, challenge and meaning. It runs on the meaning or pattern we see embodied in the life of Jesus. In this story, pregnancy abounds. Newness multiplies. Freedom grows. Meaning expands. Wisdom flows. Healing happens. Goodness runs wild.

So here we are, alive and paying attention. We discern patterns in life. We interpret those patterns and we open ourselves to the possibility of a creative logos of love and wisdom that runs through the universe like a current and can play in our lives like a song.

wave

Engage

Meditation and Contemplation

1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?

2. Share a story about a time when you lived by the logic of rivalry, compliance or meaningless mechanism. How did that work out for you?

3. Imagine and describe what your life would be like if you chose to live more by the logos of love than you do now.

4. For children: Is there one cartoon or film that you like to watch again and again? What about it makes you want to keep enjoying it again and again?

5. Activate: Share with someone this week – a family member, a friend, a co-worker or an acquaintance – the idea that we all live by a certain logos or logic. Ask them which logos they see to be most powerful in today’s world – rivalry, compliance, meaningless mechanism or love.

6. Meditate: Observe a few moments of silence to imagine yourself living more fully in the logos of love.