Chapter 31


Chapter 31

The Choice Is Yours

Matthew 7:13–29

(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)

. . . the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Imagine that hillside in Galilee. Jesus is seated, surrounded by his disciples, a huge crowd circled around them. Perhaps it’s the rhythm and tone of his voice. Maybe it’s the pace of his words. Somehow they know he is building towards a climax, a moment of decision. He presents a series of vivid images, all in pairs.

First, there are two gates, opening to two roads. We can’t travel both. One, he says, is broad and smooth like a Roman highway. It leads to destruction. One is narrow and rocky like a mountain path. It leads to life. ‘Go along with the crowd,’ Jesus implies, ‘and you’ll end up in disaster. But dare to be different, dare to follow a new and different path, and you’ll learn what it means to be alive.’

Next, there are two vines or two trees producing two different kinds of fruit, each representing aliveness. One approach to life produces thorns, briars and thistles; another approach produces luscious fruits. Get your inner identity straight, he tells them, and your life will be fruitful.

Next there are two groups of people, one entering Jesus’ presence, the other going away. One group may boast of all its religious credentials, but Jesus isn’t impressed by talk. He’s looking for people he knows, people he recognises – people, we might say, who ‘get’ him and understand what he’s about. We can identify them because they translate their understanding into action.

Finally there are two builders building two houses, one on sand, one on rock. They both represent people who hear Jesus’ message. They both experience falling rain, rising floodwaters and buffeting winds. The big difference? The person who builds on the solid foundation, whose structure withstands the storm, doesn’t just hear Jesus’ message; he translates it into action.

Each pair of images challenges us to move beyond mere interest and agreement to commitment and action. And what is the desired action? To take everything Jesus has taught us – all we have considered as we have listened to him here on this hillside – and translate it into our way of living, our way of being alive.

It makes sense, then, to go back and review the substance of Jesus’ teaching:

Be among the lowly in spirit, remain sensitive to pain and loss, live in the power of gentleness, hunger and thirst for true righteousness, show mercy to everyone rather than harshness, don’t hide hypocrisy or duplicity in your heart, work for peace, be willing to joyfully suffer persecution and insult for doing what is right.

Dare to be a non-conformist by being boldly different, like salt and light in the world. Demonstrate your differentness through works of generosity and beauty.

Reject both mindless conformity to tradition and rebellious rejection of it. Instead, discern the true intent of tradition and pursue that intent into new territory.

Never hate, hold grudges or indulge in anger, but instead, aim to be the first to reach out a hand in reconciliation.

Do not nurture secret fantasies to be sexually unfaithful to your spouse. Ensure fidelity by monitoring your desires – the way you see (symbolised by the eye) and grasp (symbolised by the hand) for pleasure. And do not settle for maintaining the appearance of legality and propriety; aspire to true fidelity in your heart.

Avoid ‘word inflation’ when making vows. Instead, practise clear, straight speech, so simple words like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ retain their full value.

Reject revenge. Instead, pursue creative and non-violent ways to overcome wrongs done to you.

Love your enemies as well as your friends, and so imitate God’s big, generous heart for all creatures.

Cultivate a hidden life of goodness by giving, praying and fasting secretly.

Pray in secret through four movements of your heart. First, orient yourself towards a caring yet mysterious God. Second, align your desires with God’s great desire for a just and compassionate world. Third, bring to God your needs and concerns – both physical and spiritual. Finally, prepare to re-enter the public world of temptation and oppression, trusting God to guide you and strengthen you.

Remember that God isn’t setting up a forgiveness market but is building a whole forgiveness economy.

Don’t let greed cloud your outlook on life, but store up true wealth by investing in a growing portfolio of generosity and kindness.

Be especially vigilant about money becoming your slave-master.

Don’t let anxiety run and ruin your life, but instead trust yourself to God’s gracious and parental care, and seek first and foremost to build the just and generous society that would fulfil God’s best dreams for humanity.

Don’t develop a sharp eye for the faults and failures of others, but instead first work on your own blindness to your own faults and failures.

Don’t push on people treasures they are not yet ready for or can’t yet appreciate the value of.

Go to God with all your needs, and don’t be discouraged if you face long delays. Remember that God loves you as a faithful, caring parent and will come through in due time.

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Realise that aliveness includes tough choices, and that thriving includes suffering.

Don’t be misled by religious talk; what counts is actually living by Jesus’ teaching.

Some may claim that God is angry and needs to be appeased through sacrifice. Some may claim that God is harsh and demanding, requiring humans to earn God’s favour through scrupulous religious rule keeping. Some may claim that God scrutinises our brains and speech for perfect doctrinal correctness. But Jesus, like the prophets before him, proclaims a different vision of God. Based on what Jesus has told us today, God is gracious and compassionate and does not need to be appeased through sacrifice. God’s love is freely given and does not have to be earned. What God desires most is that we seek God’s commonwealth of justice, live with generosity and kindness, and walk humbly – and secretly – with God.

If you were there that day on the Galilean hillside, what would your decision have been? No doubt you would have been impressed, but would you have said ‘yes’?



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 fork in the road that you faced, where you made a life-changing choice.

3. How do you respond to the summary of Jesus’ sermon?

4. For children: What do you think of this as a basic rule for life: ‘Treat other people the way you wish they would treat you’?

5. Activate: Choose one of the summary statements of Jesus’ teaching that you think you most need to focus on. Write it down, or e-mail it to yourself, or put it on your calendar, or in some other way make sure you will be reminded of it several times each day this week.

6. Meditate: After a few moments of holding the image of a house standing strong in a storm, ask God to help you develop this kind of strength as a disciple of Jesus.

Chapter 30


Chapter 30

Why we worry, why we judge.

Matthew 6:19 – 7:12

(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Wise parents soon learn what makes their children cranky: not getting enough sleep, too much sugar, being hungry, not getting time alone, too much time alone, lack of stimulation, too much stimulation. Have you ever wondered what makes grown-ups cranky?

In the next section of Jesus’ core teaching, he strips away layer after layer until he exposes three core problems that turn us into dismal grouches and keep us from enjoying life to the full.

Our first core problem is anxiety. Driven by anxiety, we act out scripts of destruction and cruelty rather than life and creativity. We worry about things beyond our control – and in so doing we often miss things within our control. For example, you may fear losing someone you love. As a result, driven by your anxiety, you grasp, cling and smother, and in that way you drive away the person you love. Do you catch the irony? If you’re anxious about your life, you won’t enjoy or experience your life – you’ll only experience your anxiety! So to be alive is to be on guard against anxiety.

Jesus names some of the things we tend to be anxious about. First, we obsess about our bodies. Are we too fat or thin, too tall or short, or too young or old, and how is our hair? Then we obsess about our food, our drink and our clothing. Are we eating at the best restaurants, drinking the finest wines, wearing the most enviable styles? Our anxieties show us how little we trust God: God must be either so incompetent or uncaring that we might end up miserable or starving or naked or dead! So we worry and worry, as if anxiety will somehow make us taller, thinner, better looking, better dressed or more healthy!

Not only are our anxieties ridiculous and counterproductive, Jesus explains, they’re also unnecessary. He points to the flowers that surround his hearers on the hillside. See how beautiful they are? Then he gestures to the flock of birds flying across the sky above them. See how alive and free they are? God knows what they need, Jesus says. God cares for them. God sustains them through the natural order of things. And God does the same for us, but we are too anxious to appreciate it.

Anxiety doesn’t stop its dirty work at the individual level. It makes whole communities tense and toxic. Anxiety-driven systems produce a pecking order as anxious people compete and use each other in their pursuit of more stuff to stave off their anxiety. Soon, participants in such a system feel they can’t trust anybody, because everyone’s out for himself or herself, driven by fear. Eventually, anxiety-driven people find a vulnerable person or group to vent their anxiety upon. The result? Bullying, scapegoating, oppression, injustice. And still they will be anxious. Before long, they’ll be making threats and launching wars so they can project their internal anxiety on an external enemy. No doubt many of Jesus’ original hearers would have thought, He’s describing the Romans! But to some degree, the diagnosis applies to us all.

Jesus advocates the opposite of an anxiety-driven system. He describes a faithsustained system that he calls God’s kingdom and justice. He makes this staggering promise: if we seek God’s kingdom and justice first, everything that we truly need – financially, physically or socially – will be given to us. His promise makes sense. When we each focus anxiously on our own individual well-being without concern for our neighbour, we enter into rivalry and everyone is worse off. But when we learn from the songbirds and wildflowers to live by faith in God’s abundance, we collaborate and share. We watch out for each other rather than compete with each other. We bless each other rather than oppress each other. We desire what God’s desires – for all to be safe, for all to be truly alive – so we work for the common good. When that happens, it’s easy to see how everyone will be better off. Contagious aliveness will spread across the land!

After anxiety, Jesus moves to a second core problem we all face. Anxious people are judgemental people. Worried that someone is judging them, they constantly judge others, which, of course, intensifies the environment of judgement for everyone. Just as anxiety quickly becomes contagious and creates an anxiety-driven system, judgement easily creates accusatory systems in which no one can rest, no one can be himself or herself, no one can feel free.

We can’t help but remember the story from Genesis – the choice between two trees, the tree of life that nourishes us to see the goodness in everything, and the tree whose fruit we grasp to know and judge everything and everyone around us as good or evil. When we see in these dualistic terms, we constantly judge us as good and condemn them as evil. In response, others do the same to us. In the shade of that tempting tree, soon nobody is safe. Nobody is free. Nobody is truly and fully alive.

So Jesus calls us back to the tree of life where we stop creating a them to condemn as evil people and an us to privilege as good people. If Jesus’ antidote to anxiety is to seek God’s kingdom and justice first, his antidote to judging is self-examination. Instead of trying to take splinters out of other people’s eyes – that is, focus on their faults – we should first deal with the planks in our own eyes. When we have experienced how difficult and delicate it is to deal with our own problems, we will be much more sensitive in helping others deal with theirs.

It’s interesting that Jesus refers again to eyes: so much about being truly alive is about seeing in a new way.

To refrain from judging does not mean we stop discerning, as Jesus’ tough words about not throwing pearls before swine make clear. Put simply, if we want to experience non-judgemental aliveness, then in everything – with no exceptions – we will do unto all others – with no exceptions – as we would have them do to us. In these words, Jesus brings us back to the central realisation that we are all connected, all children in the same family, all loved by the same Parent, all precious and beloved. In this way, Jesus leads us out of an anxiety-driven and judgement-driven system, and into a faith-sustained, grace-based system that yields aliveness.

Beneath our anxiety and judging lies an even deeper problem, according to Jesus. We do not realise how deeply we are loved. He invites us to imagine a child asking his mum or dad for some bread or fish. No parent would give their hungry child a stone or snake, right? If human parents, with all their faults, know how to give good gifts to their children, can’t we trust the living God to be generous and compassionate to all who call out for help?

So next time you’re grouchy, angry, anxious and uptight, here is some wisdom to help you come back from being ‘out of your mind’ to being ‘in your right mind’ again.

Try telling yourself: My own anxiety is more dangerous to me than whatever I am anxious about. My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn in others. My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly, truly loved.

From that wisdom, unworried, unhurried, unpressured aliveness will flow again.



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 anxious, judgemental, or both.

3. How do you respond to the idea that our deepest problem is that we don’t know we are loved? In what ways does it help you to think of God’s love as fatherly, and in what ways does it help to think of God’s love as motherly? Are there ways that imagining God as a loving friend helps you in ways that parental images for God don’t?

4. For children: Why do you think little children are often afraid to be left with a babysitter? What is so special about having your parents around?

5. Activate: This week, monitor yourself for anxiety and judgement. Whenever you see them arising in you, bring to mind Jesus’ teaching in this lesson.

6. Meditate: In silence, ponder how the love of good parents frees their children from anxiety and the need to judge one another. Savour that feeling of being safe and secure in God’s love.

Chapter 29


Chapter 29

Your Secret Life

Matthew 6:1–18

(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

All of us agree: the world isn’t what it should be.

We all wish the world would change. But how? How can we change the world, when we can hardly change ourselves? The forces of conformity and peer pressure are so strong. We set out to change the world, and time and time again the reverse happens. Or we resist the status quo with such fury that we become bitter, cynical, angry – hardly models of a better world. That’s why we aren’t surprised when Jesus turns to the dynamics of change in our personal lives. He shows us how to be the change we want to see in the world.

The key concept, according to Jesus, is the opposite of what we might expect. If you want to see change in the outside world, the first step is to withdraw into your inner world. Connect with God in secret, and the results will occur ‘openly’.

Jesus offers three specific examples of how this withdrawal process works: giving in secret, praying in secret and fasting in secret. Giving, praying and fasting are often called spiritual disciplines or practices: actions within our power by which we become capable of things currently beyond our power.

For example, can you run twenty miles? If you haven’t trained, no matter how well intentioned you are, you will be reduced to a quivering mass of cramps and exhaustion before you reach the finish line. But, as thousands of people have learned, you can start training. You can start running shorter distances in private, and gradually increase them. A few months from now you could cross the finish line in full public view!

If through physical practice a lazy slug can end up a lean and energetic runner, then through spiritual practice an impatient and self-obsessed egotist can become a gentle, generous and mature human being. But Jesus makes clear that not just any practices will do: we need the right practices, employed with the right motives. ‘Practice makes perfect’, it turns out, isn’t quite accurate. It’s truer to say practice makes habit. That’s why Jesus emphasises the importance of practising prayer, fasting and generosity in secret. If we don’t withdraw from public view, we’ll habitually turn our spiritual practices into a show for others, which will sabotage their power to bring deep change in us. So, instead of seeking to appear more holy or spiritual in public than we are in private, Jesus urges us to become more holy or spiritual in private than we appear to be in public.

When it comes to giving, Jesus says, don’t publicise your generosity like the hypocrites do. Don’t let your left hand know how generous your right hand is. By giving in secret, you’ll experience the true reward of giving. A good way to make secret giving habitual is to give on a regular basis to the local church, as a percentage of our income, as we learn in scripture. As our income increases over time, we can increase our standard of giving and not just our standard of living. It’s kind of ironic: a lot of people do ugly things in secret – they steal, lie, cheat and so on. Jesus reverses things, urging us to plot goodness in secret, to do good and beautiful things without getting caught.

It’s the same when it comes to prayer, Jesus says. Prayer can either strengthen your soul in private or raise your profile in public, but not both. So don’t parrot the empty phrases of those who pray as if they were being paid by the word. A few simple words, uttered in secret, make much more sense . . . especially since God knows what you need before you even ask. Jesus offers a model for the kind of simple, concise, private prayer that he recommends. His model prayer consists of four simple but profound moves.

First, we orient ourselves to God. We acknowledge God as the loving parent whose infinite embrace puts us in a family relationship with all people, and with all creation. And we acknowledge God as the glorious holy mystery whom we can name but who can never be contained by our words or concepts.

Second, we align our greatest desire with God’s greatest desire. We want the world to be the kind of place where God’s dreams come true, where God’s justice and compassion reign.

Third, we bring to God our needs and concerns – our physical needs for things like food and shelter, and our social and spiritual needs for things like forgiveness for our wrongs and reconciliation with those who have wronged us.

Finally, we prepare ourselves for the public world which we will soon re-enter. We ask to be guided away from the trials and temptations that could ruin us, and we ask to be liberated from evil.

Immediately after the model prayer, Jesus adds a reminder that God isn’t interested in creating a forgiveness market where people come and acquire cheap forgiveness for themselves. God is interested in creating a whole forgiveness economy – where forgiveness is freely received and freely given, unleashing waves of reconciliation in our world that is so ravaged by waves of resentment and revenge.

Jesus takes us through the same pattern with the spiritual practice of fasting: ‘Whenever you . . . do not . . . but do . . .’ he says. Whenever you fast, don’t try to look all sad and dishevelled like those who make spirituality a performance. Instead, keep your hunger a secret. Let every minute when your stomach is growling be a moment where you affirm to God, ‘More than my body desires food, I desire you, Lord! More than my stomach craves fullness, I crave to be full of you! More than my tongue desires sweetness or salt, my soul desires your goodness!’

So, Jesus teaches, if we make our lives a show staged for others to avoid their criticism or gain their praise, we won’t experience the reward of true aliveness.

It’s only in secret, in the presence of God alone, that we begin the journey to aliveness.

Jesus now turns to the subject of wealth. Just as we can practise giving, prayer and fasting for social enhancement or spiritual benefit, we can build our lives around public, external, financial wealth or a higher kind of ‘secret’ wealth. Jesus calls this higher wealth ‘treasure in heaven’. Not only is this hidden wealth more secure, it also recentres our lives in God’s presence, and that brings a shift to our whole value system so that we see everything differently. When we see and measure everything in life in terms of money, all of life falls into a kind of dismal shadow. When we seek to be rich in generosity and kindness instead, life is full of light.

Some people shame the poor, as if the only reason poor people are poor is that they’re lazy or stupid. Some shame the rich, as if the only reason they’re rich is that they’re selfish and greedy. Jesus doesn’t shame anyone, but calls everyone to a higher kind of wealth and a deeper kind of ambition. And that ambition begins not with how we want to appear in public, but with who we want to be in secret.

The world won’t change unless we change, and we won’t change unless we pull away from the world’s games and pressures. In secrecy, in solitude, in God’s presence, a new aliveness can, like a seed, begin to take root. And if that life takes root in us, we can be sure it will bear fruit through us . . . fruit that can change the world.



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 did something good – but for a less-than-ideal motive.

3. How do you respond to the four-part summary of Jesus’ model prayer?

4. For children: Why do you think grown-ups think about money so much? What do you think about money? Do you get an allowance? Is that important to you? Why?

5. Activate: This week, decide whether you’d like to experiment with giving, fasting or praying in secret. But don’t tell anyone!

6. Meditate: Hold the phrase ‘treasure in heaven’ in silence in God’s presence, and notice how your heart responds.

Chapter 28

There will be a couple of extra chapters slotted in throughout Lent to match the timing of Easter this year. They will be released mid-week. Enjoy.


Chapter 28

A New Path to Aliveness

Matthew 5:17–48

(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

Anyone present that day would have felt some tension in the air. Many in the crowd stuck to the familiar road of tradition, playing by the rules, leading conservative, conventional and respectable lives. They were worried that Jesus was too . . . different, too non-compliant. Others ran on a very different road. Unfettered by tradition, they gladly bent any rule that got in their way. They were worried that Jesus wasn’t different and defiant enough.

According to Jesus, neither group was on the road to true aliveness.

When Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,’ you can imagine the traditionalists in the crowd felt relieved, because that was just what they feared he was about to do. When he added, ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,’ they must have tensed up again, wondering what he could possibly mean by ‘fulfil’. Then, when he said, ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,’ the non-traditionalists would have looked dismayed. How could anyone be more righteous than that fastidious crowd?

As Jesus continued, it became clear he was proposing a third way that neither the compliant nor the non-compliant had ever considered before. Aliveness won’t come through unthinking conformity to tradition, he tells them. And it won’t come from defying tradition either. It will come only if we discern and fulfil the highest intent of tradition – even if doing so means breaking with the details of tradition in the process.

If tradition could be compared to a road that began in the distant past and continues to the present, Jesus dares to propose that the road isn’t finished yet. To extend the road of tradition into the future – to fulfil its potential – we must first look back to discern its general direction. Then, informed by the past, we must look forward and dare to step beyond where the road currently ends, venturing off the map, so to speak, into new territory. To stop where the road of tradition currently ends, Jesus realises, would actually end the adventure and bring the tradition to a standstill. So faithfulness doesn’t simply allow us to extend the tradition and seek to fulfil its unexplored potential; it requires us to do so.

But what does it mean to fulfil the tradition? Jesus answers that question with a series of examples. Each example begins, ‘You have heard that it was said . . .’ which introduces what the tradition has taught. Then Jesus dares to say, ‘But I say . . .’ This is not, as his critics will claim, an act of abolishment or destruction. His ‘but I say’ will creatively fulfil the intent of the tradition.

The tradition said, ‘Don’t murder.’ That was a good start. However, the tradition didn’t want us to stop merely at the point of avoiding murder. So as a first step beyond what the tradition required, Jesus calls us to root out the anger that precedes the physical violence that leads to murder. As a second step, he calls us to deal with the verbal violence of name-calling that precedes the physical violence that leads to murder. As a third step, he urges us to engage in pre-emptive reconciliation. In other words, whenever we detect a breach in a relationship, we don’t need to determine who is at fault. The intent of tradition isn’t merely to be ‘in the right’; the goal is to be in a right relationship. So we are to deal with the breach quickly and proactively, seeking true reconciliation. Being in a right relationship – not merely avoiding murder – was the intent of the tradition all along.

That kind of pre-emptive reconciliation, Jesus teaches, will help us avoid the chain reactions of offence, revenge and counter-offence that lead to murder, and that keep our court systems busy and our prison systems full.

After extending the road in the area of violence, Jesus moves to four more issues, each deeply important both to individuals and societies – sexuality, marriage, oaths and revenge. In each case, conventional religious morality – which Jesus calls the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees – focuses on not doing external wrong: not murdering, not committing adultery, not committing illegal divorce, not breaking sacred oaths, not getting revenge. For Jesus, true aliveness focuses on transforming our deeper desires.

So, regarding sexuality, the tradition requires you to avoid adultery. But Jesus says to extend the road, to go further and deeper by learning to manage your internal lustful desires. Regarding divorce, you can try to ‘make it legal’ in the eyes of society as the tradition requires. But Jesus challenges you to go further and deeper by desiring true fidelity in your heart. Regarding oaths, you can play a lot of silly verbal games to shade the truth. Or you can go further and deeper, desiring simple, true speech, saying what you mean and meaning what you say. And regarding retaliation against injustice, you can react in ways that play right into unjust systems. Or you can go further and deeper, transcending those systems entirely.

Here Jesus gets very practical. As people living under Roman occupation, his hearers were used to getting shoved around. It was not uncommon for a Roman soldier to give one of them a backhand slap – the insulting whack of a superior to an inferior. When this happened, some would skulk away in humiliation or beg the bully not to hit them again. But that rewarded the oppressor’s violence, and it made them complicit in their own diminishment.

That was why others dreamed of retaliation, of pulling out a dagger and slitting the throat of the oppressor. But that would reduce them to the same violent level as their oppressors. So Jesus offered them a creative alternative: stand tall and courageously turn the other cheek, he said. In so doing, they would choose non-violence, strength, courage and dignity . . . and they would model a better way of life for their oppressors, rather than mirroring the violent example they were setting.

Another problem they frequently faced was that rich landowners would often take tenant farmers to court. If they hadn’t paid their rent or tribute, the landowners would start suing them for their personal belongings. So, Jesus said, if someone takes you to court and they sue for your outer garment, go ahead and strip down naked and give them your underwear as well. Yes, your ‘generosity’ leaves you exposed – but your nakedness also exposes the naked greed of your oppressor.

Often, a Roman soldier would order a civilian of an occupied nation to carry his pack for a mile. If the civilian refused to do so, he would show courage and self-respect, but he would probably end up dead or in jail. Most would comply, but once again, doing so would reinforce the oppressor’s sense of superiority and their own sense of humiliation. Jesus tells his disciples to surprise their oppressors by volunteering to take the pack a second mile. The first mile may be forced upon them, but the second mile they’ll walk free. The first mile they are oppressed, but the second mile they transcend their oppression and treat their oppressor as a human being, demonstrating the very human kindness that he fails to practise.

Neither the compliant nor the defiant typically imagine such creative responses. Jesus is helping their moral and social imagination come alive.

Jesus employs his ‘you have heard it said . . . but I say . . .’ pattern once more, perhaps the most radical example of all. Tradition always requires love and responsibility towards friends and neighbours, people we like, people like us, people ‘of our kind’. That is a big step beyond utter selfishness and narcissism. But Jesus says that the road of tradition was never meant to end there. Love should now be extended further than before, to outsiders as well as insiders, to them as well as us, even to our enemies. We may not have walked the road that far yet, but that is God’s intent for us.

Again, using example after example, Jesus directs his disciples beyond what the tradition requires to what the Creator desires. ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,’ he says. Some people might assume that by ‘be perfect’ he means ‘achieve external technical perfection’, which is what the scribes and Pharisees aim for. But Jesus means something far deeper and wiser. He tells them that God doesn’t let rain and sunshine fall only on good people’s lands, leaving bad people to starve. No, God is good to all, no exceptions. God’s perfection is a compassionate and gracious perfection. It goes far beyond the traditional requirements of the scribes and Pharisees.

For us today, as for the disciples on that Galilean hillside, this is our better option – better than mere technical compliance to tradition, better than defiance of tradition.

This is our third way.

God is out ahead of us, calling us forward – not to stay where tradition has brought us so far, and not to defy tradition reactively, but to fulfil the highest and best intent of tradition, to make the road by walking forward together.



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 someone knew you had done wrong but loved you anyway.

3. How do you respond to the comparison between a tradition and a road? Where do you think you are being called to move beyond where you are right now?

4. For children: Are there times when you want to do better than ‘good enough’? What makes you want to do your very best?

5. Activate: This week, look for opportunities to practise Jesus’ teaching in regard to violence, lust, marriage, oaths and revenge.

6. Meditate: In silence, ponder God’s perfection as a compassionate perfection. Let a prayer of praise arise from your heart to break the silence.

Part 3 / Chapter 27


Part 3

Alive in a Global Uprising

Joining the adventure of Jesus is a starting line, not a finish line. It leads us into a lifetime of learning and action. It challenges us to stand up against the way things have been and the way things are, to help create new possibilities for the way things can and should be. It enlists us as contemplative activists in an ongoing uprising of peace, freedom, justice and compassion. In Part 3 we focus on what it means for us to join in his adventure.

The first five chapters have been written for use in the traditional season of Lent. They are dedicated to Jesus’ most concentrated teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). Rather than having multiple Scripture readings during this season, we will read one passage multiple times to encourage deeper reflection. Then, for Passion Week, we will imagine ourselves in and around Jerusalem.

Beginning with Easter, we’ll travel with the growing company of disciples as their uprising spreads across the Mediterranean world.


Chapter 27

A New Identity

Matthew 5:1–16
(Read this passage reflectively two or three times.)

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Imagine yourself in Galilee, on a windswept hillside near a little fishing town called Capernaum. Flocks of birds circle and land. Wildflowers bloom among the grasses between rock outcrops. The Sea of Galilee glistens blue below us, reflecting the clear midday sky above.

A small group of disciples circles a young man who appears to be about thirty. He is sitting, as rabbis in this time and culture normally do. Huge crowds extend beyond the inner circle of disciples, in a sense eavesdropping on what he is teaching them. This is the day they’ve been waiting for. This is the day Jesus is going to pass on to them the heart of his message.

Jesus begins in a fascinating way. He uses the term blessed to address the question of identity, the question of who we want to be. In Jesus’ day, to say ‘Blessed are these people’ is to say ‘Pay attention: these are the people you should aspire to be like. This is the group you want to belong to.’ It’s the opposite of saying ‘Woe to those people’ or ‘Cursed are those people’, which means ‘Take note: you definitely don’t want to be like those people or counted among their number.’

His words no doubt surprise everyone, because we normally play by these rules of the game: Do everything you can to be rich and powerful. Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss. Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness. Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order. Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.

But Jesus defines success and well-being in a profoundly different way. Who are blessed? What kinds of people should we seek to be identified with?

  • The poor and those in solidarity with them.
  • Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss.
  • The non-violent and gentle.
  • Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo.
  • The merciful and compassionate.
  • Those characterised by openness, sincerity and unadulterated motives.
  • Those who work for peace and reconciliation.
  • Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged.
  • Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quieten down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened and harmed.

Jesus has been speaking for only a matter of seconds, and he has already turned our normal status ladders and social pyramids upside down. He advocates an identity characterised by solidarity, sensitivity and non-violence. He celebrates those who long for justice, embody compassion and manifest integrity and non-duplicity. He creates a new kind of hero: not warriors, corporate executives or politicians, but brave and determined activists for pre-emptive peace, willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.

Our choice is clear from the start. If we want to be his disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society.

We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.

Jesus promises we will pay a price for making that choice. But he also promises we will discover many priceless rewards. If we seek the kind of unconventional blessedness he proposes, we will experience the true aliveness of God’s kingdom, the warmth of God’s comfort, the enjoyment of the gift of this Earth, the satisfaction of seeing God’s restorative justice come more fully, the joy of receiving mercy, the direct experience of God’s presence, the honour of association with God and of being in league with the prophets of old. That is the identity he invites us to seek.

That identity will give us a very important role in the world. As creative nonconformists, we will be difference makers, aliveness activists, catalysts for change. Like salt that brings out the best flavours in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society. Also like salt, we will have a preservative function – opposing corruption and decay. Like light that penetrates and eradicates darkness, we will radiate health, goodness and well-being to warm and enlighten those around us. Simply by being who we are – living boldly and freely in this new identity as salt and light – we will make a difference, as long as we don’t lose our ‘saltiness’ or try to hide our light.

We’ll be tempted, no doubt, to let ourselves be tamed, toned down, shut up and glossed over. But Jesus means us to stand apart from the status quo, to stand up for what matters, and to stand out as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. He means our lives to overcome the blandness and darkness of evil with the salt and light of good works. Instead of drawing attention to ourselves, those good works will point towards God. ‘Wow!’ people will say. ‘When I see the goodness and kindness of your lives, I can believe there’s a good and kind God out there too.’

The way Jesus phrases these memorable lines tells us something important about him. Like all great leaders, he isn’t preoccupied with himself. He puts others – us – in the spotlight when he says, ‘You are the salt of the Earth. You are the light of the world.’ Yes, there’s a place and time for him to declare who he is, but he begins by declaring who we are.

It’s hot in the Galilean sunshine. Still, the crowds are hanging on Jesus’ every word. They can tell something profound and life-changing is happening within them and among them. Jesus is not simply trying to restore their religion to some ideal state in the past. Nor is he agitating unrest to start a new religion to compete with the old one. No, it’s abundantly clear that he’s here to start something bigger, deeper and more subversive: a global uprising that can spread to and through every religion and culture. This uprising begins not with a new strategy but with a new identity. So he spurs his hearers into reflection about who they are, who they want to be, what kind of people they will become, what they want to make of their lives.

As we consider Jesus’ message today, we join those people on that hillside, grappling with the question of who we are now and who we want to become in the future. Some of us are young, with our whole lives ahead of us. Some of us are further along, with a lot of hopes left and not a lot of time to fulfil them.

As we listen to Jesus, each of us knows, deep inside: If I accept this new identity, everything will change for me.

Everything will change.



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 someone who has impressed you as being the kind of salt and light Jesus spoke of.

3. How do you respond to the reversal of status ladders and social pyramids described in this chapter?

4. For children: Lots of people ask children what they want to be when they grow up. But what kind of child do you want to be right now?

5. Activate: This week, look for ways to be a non-conformist – resisting the pressures of your environment and conforming your life to the alternative values of the beatitudes.

6. Meditate: In silence, imagine darkness, and into that darkness, imagine light coming from a candle, a sunrise, a fire or a torch. Hold these questions open before God: Which is more fragile and which ismore powerful, light or darkness? How can my life become like light?

Chapter 26


Chapter 26

Making it Real

Mark 2:1–19

[Jesus] said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

Hebrews 11:1–8
1 John 1:1 – 2:6

Let’s imagine ourselves visitors in a small village in Galilee, just at the time Jesus was passing through. A crowd has completely filled a house. An even bigger crowd surrounds the house, with people crammed around every open window and door. We approach but can only hear a word or two. We ask a woman on the edge of the crowd about what’s going on inside. She whispers that inside the house is a rabbi everyone wants to hear. We ask her who he is. She motions for us to follow her and whispers, ‘I am Mary. I come from Magdala, a town not far from here. I don’t want to disturb those who are trying to listen. I will be glad to tell you what I know.’

When we get a stone’s throw from the crowd, Mary explains that the rabbi inside is the son of a tradesman from Nazareth. He has no credentials or status, no army or weapons, no nobility or wealth. He travels from village to village with a dozen of his friends plus a substantial number of supportive women, teaching deep truths to the peasants of Galilee.

‘Look around at us,’ she says. ‘We are poor. Many of us are unemployed, and some are homeless. See how many of us are disabled, and how many are, like me, women. Few of us can afford an education. But to be uneducated is not the same as being stupid.

Stupid people cannot survive in times like these. So we are hungry to learn. And wherever this rabbi goes, it is like a free school for everyone – even women like me. Do you see why we love him?’

We ask, ‘Do you think he is starting a new religion?’

She thinks for a moment and whispers, ‘I think Rabbi Jesus is doing something far more dangerous than starting a new religion. He says he is announcing a new kingdom.’

We continue, ‘So he is a rebel?’

‘His kingdom is not like the regimes of this world that take up daggers, swords and spears,’ Mary says. ‘He heals the sick, teaches the unschooled and inspires the downtrodden with hope. So no, I would not say that he is a rebel. Nor would I say that this is a revolution. I would call it an uprising, an uprising of learning and hope.’

We look curious, so she continues: ‘According to Rabbi Jesus, you cannot point to this land or that region and say, “The kingdom of God is located here,” because it exists in us, among us. It does not come crashing in like an army, he says. It grows slowly, quietly, under the surface, like the roots of a tree, like yeast in dough, like seeds in soil. Our faith waters the seed and makes it grow. Do you see this? When people trust it is true, they act upon it and it becomes true. Our faith unlocks its potential. Our faith makes it real. You can see why this message is unlike anything people around here have ever heard.’ Mary looks concerned. She asks, ‘And where are you from? You aren’t spies from Jerusalem, are you, looking for a reason to arrest the rabbi?’

‘No, we are travellers,’ we reply, ‘passing through.’ We quickly turn the subject back to her: ‘You are one of his disciples?’

She looks down for a moment and replies, ‘Not yet. But I am considering it.’

We wait for her to continue: ‘Most of my friends in Magdala are just trying to survive. Some of them are indeed dreaming about a holy war against Rome and their puppets in Jerusalem. Even little boys are sharpening their knives and talking of war. But I think that is foolish. My father was killed in the rebellion in Sepphoris, so I know. There must be another way. Another kind of uprising. An uprising of peace. If Rabbi Jesus can lead that kind of uprising, I will join it gladly.’

‘You seem to have a lot of faith,’ we observe. ‘Do you ever have doubts?’

She laughs. ‘Sometimes I think his message is the crazy dream of poets and artists, the fantasy of children at play, or old men who drink too much. But then I ask, what other message could possibly change the world? Perhaps what is truly crazy is what we are doing instead – thinking that a little more hate can conquer hate, a little more war can cure war, a little more pride can overcome pride, a little more revenge can end revenge, a little more gold can cure greed, or a little more division can create cohesion.’

Mary is silent for a moment, lost in her thoughts. She turns again to us. ‘What about you? Are you beginning to believe in him? Do you trust him?’

That question has a peculiar power, doesn’t it? ‘Do you trust him?’ is not the same as ‘Do you believe he existed?’ or ‘Do you believe certain doctrines about him?’ It’s a question about commitment, about confidence. For Jesus, the call to trust him was closely linked to the call to follow him. If we truly trust him, we will follow him on the road, imitate him, learn from his example, live by his way. Because his message was and is so radical on so many levels, believing and following can’t be treated lightly. They are costly. They require us to rethink everything. They change the course of our lives.

This time, we have been lost in our own thoughts, so Mary asks again: ‘Maybe you believe he is misguided and only misleads others? That is what the religious scholars from Jerusalem think.’

‘We’re like you,’ we respond. ‘We want to learn more. We feel our hearts being drawn towards him. Maybe we are beginning to trust him.’

‘So we must go back and listen,’ she says. We return with our new companion to the edge of the crowd. While we were away, it appears there has been some kind of commotion on the roof of the house. The crowd is buzzing about a paralysed man being healed.

Mary leans towards us and whispers: ‘Often when he heals someone, he says, “Your faith has healed you.” So there it is again. With him, faith is where it all begins. When you believe, you make it real.’

‘You change this’ – she points to her head – ‘and this’ – she points to her heart – ‘and you change all this.’ She gestures to indicate the whole world.

We hear in her words a summons, a challenge, a life-changing invitation. Do we dare to step out and follow Jesus, to make the road by walking, to risk everything on an uprising of peace, an uprising of generosity, an uprising of forgiveness, an uprising of love?

If we believe, we will make it real.



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 one of your biggest decisions – how you reached it, how it felt before and after making the choice.

3. How do you respond to the idea that faith makes it real?

4. For children: Who is someone you want to be like when you grow up?

5. Activate: This week, consider beginning each day with the words ‘I believe’. If you would like, add the words ‘Help my unbelief’. Echo them throughout the day when they arise in your heart.

6. Meditate: Sit in silence with Jesus’ words: ‘Your faith has made you well.’ What in you feels like it is being made well? End the silence with a simple prayer.

Chapter 25


Chapter 25

Jesus, Violence and Power

Isaiah 42:1–9; 53

. . . a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Matthew 16:13 – 17:9

Once Jesus took his disciples on a field trip. There was something he wanted them to learn, and there was a perfect place for them to learn it. So he led them on a twenty-fivemile trek north from their base in Galilee to a city called Caesarea Philippi, a regional centre of the Roman Empire.

The city was built beside a dramatic escarpment or cliff face. A famous spring emerged from the base of the cliff. Before Roman occupation, the spring had been known as Panias, because it was a centre for worship of the Canaanite god Baal, and later for the Greek god Pan. Worshippers carved elaborate niches, still visible today, into the cliff face. There they placed statues of Pan and other Greek deities. Panias also had a reputation as the site of a devastating military defeat. At Panias, invading armies affiliated with Alexander the Great took the whole region for the Greek Empire.

Eventually the Romans replaced the Greeks, and when their regional ruler Herod the Great died, his son Herod Philip was given control of the region around Panias. He changed the name to Caesarea Philippi. By the first name he honoured Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor. By the second name, he honoured himself and distinguished the city from another city named Caesarea Maritima – on the coast. The city was, in effect, Philip’s Caesar-ville.

Imagine what it would be like to enter Caesar-ville with Jesus and his team. Today we might imagine a Jewish leader bringing his followers to Auschwitz, a Japanese leader to Hiroshima, a Native American leader to Wounded Knee, or a Palestinian leader to the wall of separation. There, in the shadow of the cliff face with its idols set into their finely carved niches, in the presence of all these terrible associations, Jesus asks his disciples a carefully crafted question: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’

We can imagine that an awkward silence might follow this rather strange and selfconscious question. But soon the answers flow. ‘Some people say you’re John the Baptist raised from the dead; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’

Jesus sharpens the question: ‘What about you? Who do you say I am?’ Another silence, and then Peter, a leader among them, speaks: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

It may sound like Peter is making a theological claim with these words. But in this setting, they’re as much a political statement as a theological one. Christ is the Greek translation for the Hebrew term Messiah, which means ‘the one anointed as liberating king’. To say ‘liberating king’ anywhere in the Roman Empire is dangerous, even more so in a city bearing Caesar’s name. By evoking the term Christ, Peter is saying, ‘You are the liberator promised by God long ago, the one for whom we have long waited. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from King Caesar.’

Similarly, Son of the living God takes on an incandescent glow in this setting. Caesars called themselves ‘sons of the gods’, but Peter’s confession asserts that their false, idolatrous claim is now trumped by Jesus’ true identity as one with authority from the true and living God. The Greek and Roman gods in their little niches in the cliff face may be called on to support the dominating rule of the Caesars. But the true and living God stands behind the liberating authority of Jesus.

Jesus says that God has blessed Peter with this revelation. He speaks in dazzling terms of Peter’s foundational role in Jesus’ mission. ‘The gates of hell’ will not prevail against their joint project, Jesus says, using a phrase that could aptly be paraphrased ‘the authority structures and control centres of evil’. Again, imagine the impact of those words in this politically charged setting.

Surely this Caesar-ville field trip has raised the disciples’ hopes and expectations about Jesus to sky-high levels. But Jesus quickly brings them back down to Earth. Soon, he says, he will travel south to Jerusalem. There he will be captured, imprisoned, tortured and killed by the religious and political establishment of their nation, after which he will be raised. Peter appears not to hear the happy ending, only the horrible middle. So he responds just as we would have, with shock and denial: ‘Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!’ (Matt. 16:22, NIV).

Do you feel Peter’s confusion? Jesus just said that Peter ‘gets it’ – that Jesus is indeed the liberating king, the revolutionary leader anointed and authorised by the living God to set oppressed people free. If that’s true, then the one thing Jesus cannot do is be defeated. He must conquer and capture, not be conquered and captured. He must torture and kill his enemies, not be tortured and killed by them. So Peter corrects Jesus: ‘Stop talking this nonsense! This could never happen!’

At that moment, Jesus turns to Peter in one of the most dramatic cases of conceptual whiplash ever recorded in literature anywhere. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Jesus says. It’s a stunning reversal. Jesus has just identified Peter as the blessed recipient of divine revelation. Now he identifies Peter as a mouthpiece of the dark side. Jesus has just named Peter as a foundational leader in a movement that will defeat the gates of hell. Now he claims Peter is working on the side of hell. Do you feel the agony of this moment?

Like most of his countrymen, Peter knows with unquestioned certainty that God will send a Messiah to lead an armed uprising to defeat and expel the occupying Roman regime and all who collaborate with it. But no, Jesus says. That way of thinking is human, satanic, the opposite of God’s plan. Since the beginning, Jesus has taught that the non-violent will inherit the Earth. Violence cannot defeat violence. Hate cannot defeat hate. Fear cannot defeat fear. Domination cannot defeat domination. God’s way is different. God must achieve victory through defeat, glory through shame, strength through weakness, leadership through servanthood, and life through death. The finely constructed mental architecture in which Peter has lived his whole adult life is threatened by this paradoxical message. It’s not the kind of change of perspective that happens quickly or easily.

But isn’t that why a master-teacher takes students on a field trip? By removing students from familiar surroundings, the teacher can dislodge them from conventional thinking. By taking them to a new place, the teacher can help them see from a new vantage point, a new perspective.

It was less than a week later that Jesus took three of his disciples on another field trip, this time to the top of a mountain. There they had a vision of Jesus, shining in glory, conversing with two of the greatest leaders in Jewish history. Again, Peter was bold to speak up, offering to make three shrines to the three great men, elevating Jesus to the same elite level as the great liberator Moses and the great prophet Elijah. This time, God’s own voice rebuked Peter, as if to say, ‘Moses and Elijah were fine for their time, but my beloved Son Jesus is on another level entirely, revealing my true heart in a unique and unprecedented way. Listen to him!’

Moses the law-giver and Elijah the prophet, great as they were, differed from Jesus in one important way: they had both engaged in violence in God’s name. But in God’s name Jesus will undergo violence, and in so doing he will overcome it. And that was why, as they came down the mountain, Jesus once again spoke of suffering, death and resurrection – a different kind of strategy for a different kind of victory.

In many ways, we’re all like Peter. We speak with great insight one minute and we make complete fools of ourselves the next. We’re clueless about how many of our pious and popular assumptions are actually illusions. We don’t know how little we know, and we have no idea how many of our ideas are wrong. Like Peter, we may use the right words to describe Jesus – Christ, Son of the living God. But we still don’t understand his heart, his wisdom, his way. But that’s OK. Peter was still learning, and so are we.

After all, life with Jesus is one big field trip that we’re taking together. So let’s keep walking.



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 completely certain about something, and then you realised you were completely (or at least partly) wrong.

3. How do you respond to this interpretation of the Caesar-ville field trip?

4. For children: What’s one of the nicest compliments you have ever received? Why did that mean a lot to you?

5. Activate: Look for situations this week when your initial reaction should be questioned, especially in relation to power dynamics.

6. Meditate: Imagine you are Peter after he hears the words, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ In silence, listen for ways your thinking is out of sync with God’s ways. Imagine what you would want to say to Jesus in reply.

Chapter 24


Chapter 24

Jesus and Hell

Jonah 4
Luke 16:19–31
Matthew 25:31–40

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

Jesus was boring, if you go by the tame and uninteresting caricature many of us were given. He was a quiet, gentle, excessively nice, somewhat fragile man on whose lap children liked to sit. He walked around in flowing robes in pastel colours, never dirty, always freshly washed and pressed. He liked to hold a small sheep in one arm and raise the other as if hailing a taxi. Or he was like an x or n – an abstract part of a mathematical equation, not important primarily because of what he said or how he lived, but only because he filled a role in the cosmic calculus of damnation and forgiveness.

The real Jesus was far more complex and interesting than any of these caricatures. And nowhere was he more defiant, subversive, courageous and creative than when he took the language of fire and brimstone from his greatest critics and used it for a very different purpose.

The idea of hell entered Jewish thought rather late. In Jesus’ day, as in our own, more traditional Jews – especially those of a political and religious group known as the Sadducees – had little to say about the afterlife and about miracles, angels and the like. Their focus was on this life and on how to be good and faithful human beings within it. Other Jews – especially the Pharisees, the Sadducees’ great rivals – had welcomed ideas on the afterlife from neighbouring cultures and religions.

To the north and east in Mesopotamia, people believed that the souls of the dead migrated to an underworld whose geography resembled an ancient walled city. Good and evil, high-born and lowly, all descended to this shadowy, scary, dark, inescapable realm. For the Egyptians to the south, the newly departed faced a ritual trial of judgement. Bad people who failed the test were then devoured by a crocodile-headed deity, and good people who passed the test settled in the land beyond the sunset.

To the west, the Greeks had a more elaborate schema. Although there were many permutations, in general souls were sorted into four groups at death: the holy and heroic, the indeterminate, the curably evil and the incurably evil. The incurably evil went to Tartarus where they would experience eternal conscious torment. The holy and heroic were admitted to the Elysian Fields, a place of joy and peace. Those in between might be sent back to Earth for multiple reincarnations until they could be properly sorted for shipment to Tartarus or the Elysian Fields.

Then there were the Persian Zoroastrians to the east. In Zoroastrianism, recently departed souls would be judged by two angels, Rashnu and Mithra. The worthy would be welcomed into the Zoroastrian version of heaven. The unworthy would be banished to the realm of the satanic figure Ahriman – their version of hell.

A large number of Jews had been exiles in the Persian Empire in the sixth century BC, and the Persians ruled over the Jews for about 150 years after they returned to rebuild Jerusalem. After that, the Greeks ruled and tried to impose their culture and religion. So it’s not surprising that many Jews adopted a mix of Persian and Greek ideas of the afterlife. In fact, the Pharisees may have picked up their name from the old word for Persian – Parsi or Farsi. For Jews who integrated Greek, Persian and other ideas into their vision of the afterlife, the heaven-bound could be easily identified. They were like the Pharisees – religiously knowledgeable and observant, socially respected, economically prosperous and healthy in body. The hell- bound were just as easily identified: the opposite of the Pharisees – uninformed about religious lore, careless about religious rules, socially suspect, economically poor and physically sick or disabled.

Jesus clearly agreed with the Pharisees that there was an afterlife. Death was not the end for Jesus. But one of the most striking facets of his life and ministry was the way he took the Pharisees’ understanding of the afterlife and turned it on its head.

Who was going to hell? Rich and successful people who lived in fancy houses and stepped over their destitute neighbours who slept in the gutters outside their gates! Proud people who judged, insulted, excluded, avoided and accused others! Hypocrites who ‘strained out gnats and swallowed camels’! In other words, who was going to hell? People just like the Pharisees! The judgement they so freely pronounced on others, Jesus turned back on them.

And who, according to Jesus, was going to heaven? The very people whom the religious elite despised, deprived, avoided, excluded and condemned. Heaven’s gates opened wide for the poor and destitute who shared in few of life’s blessings; the sinners, the sick and the homeless who felt superior to nobody and who therefore appreciated God’s grace and forgiveness all the more; even the prostitutes and tax collectors. Imagine how this overturning of the conventional understanding of hell must have shocked everyone – multitudes and Pharisees alike.

Again and again, Jesus took conventional language and imagery for hell and reversed it. We might say he wasn’t so much teaching about hell as he was un-teaching about hell. In so doing, he wasn’t simply arguing for a different understanding of the afterlife. He was doing something far more important and radical: proclaiming a transformative vision of God. God is not the one who condemns the poor and weak, nor is God the one who favours the rich and righteous. God is the one who loves everyone, including the people the rest of us think don’t count. Those fire-and-brimstone passages that countless preachers have used to scare people about hell, it turns out, weren’t intended to teach us about hell: Jesus used the language of hell to teach us a radical new vision of God!

Jesus used fire-and-brimstone language in another way as well. He used it to warn his countrymen about the catastrophe of following their current road – a wide and smooth highway leading to another violent uprising against the Romans. Violence won’t produce peace, he warned; it will produce only more violence. If his countrymen persisted in their current path, Jesus warned, the Romans would get revenge on them by taking their greatest pride – the temple – and reducing it to ashes and rubble. The Babylonians had done it once, and the Romans could do it again. That was why he advocated a different path – a ‘rough and narrow path’ of non-violent social change instead of the familiar broad highway of hate and violence.

For a time, the Pharisees rejected both Jesus’ alternative portrayal of God and his warnings about a violent uprising. In fact, the Pharisees joined with the Zealots and became leaders in a rebellion against the Roman Empire in ad 67. Their grand scheme succeeded for a time, but three years later the Romans marched in and crushed the rebellion. Jerusalem was devastated and the temple was destroyed. The nation was even worse off after its revolution than before.

And that was when the Pharisees changed. In many ways, after their failed revolution, they followed a path more like the one Jesus had taught. They showed that it wasn’t too late to change, even for the Pharisees.

In that outcome, we see the real purpose of Jesus’ fire-and-brimstone language. Its purpose was not to predict the destruction of the universe or to make absolute for all eternity the insider-outsider categories of us and them. Its purpose was to wake up complacent people, to warn them of the danger of their current path, and to challenge them to change – using the strongest language and imagery available. As in the ancient story of Jonah, God’s intent was not to destroy but to save. Neither a great big fish nor a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace.

Sadly, many religious people still use the imagery of hell more in the conventional way Jesus sought to reverse. Like Jonah, they seem disappointed that God’s grace might get the final word. If more of us would re-examine this fascinating dimension of Jesus’ teaching and come to a deeper understanding of it, we would see what a courageous, subversive and fascinating leader he was, pointing us to a radically different way of seeing God, life and being alive.



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 someone confronted you with a mistake or fault and you didn’t respond well.
3. How do you respond to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus?
4. For children: What are some of the ways that grown-ups try to keep children from doing harmful or dangerous things? What ways do you think work the best?
5. Activate: This week, look for people like Lazarus in the parable and refuse to imitate the rich man in your response to them.
6. Meditate: Imagine the rich man walking by Lazarus in the gutter. In silence, ask God if you are stepping over anyone in your life.

Chapter 23


Chapter 23

Jesus and the Multitudes

Ezekiel 34
Luke 5:17–32; 18:15 – 19:9

Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’

Most human societies are divided between the elites and the masses. The elites are the 1 or 3 or 5 per cent at the top that have and hoard the most money, weapons, power, influence and opportunities. They make the rules and usually rig the game to protect their interests. They forge alliances across sectors – in government, business, religion, media, the arts, sciences and the military. As a result, they have loyal allies across all sectors of a society and they reward those allies to keep them loyal.

Down at the bottom, we find the masses – commonly called ‘the multitude’ in the Gospels. They provide cheap labour in the system run by the elites. They work with little pay, little security, little prestige and little notice. They live in geographically distant regions or in socially distant slums. So to the elites, the multitudes can remain surprisingly invisible and insignificant most of the time.

In the middle, between the elites and the multitudes, we find those loyal allies who function as mediators between the few above them and the many below them. As such, they make a little more money than the masses, and they live in hope that they or their children can climb up the pyramid, closer to the elites. But those above them generally don’t want too much competition from below, so they make sure the pyramid isn’t too easy to climb.

These dynamics were at work in Jesus’ day, and he was well aware of them. In his parables he constantly made heroes of people from the multitudes: day labourers, small farmers, women working in the home, slaves and children. He captured the dilemma of what we would call middle management – the stewards, tax collectors and their associates who extracted income from the poor and powerless below them for the sake of the rich and powerful above them. And he exposed the duplicity and greed of those at the top – especially the religious leaders who enjoyed a cozy, lucrative alliance with the rich elites.

In addressing the social realities of his day, Jesus constantly turned the normal dominance pyramid on its head, confusing even his disciples.

Take, for example, the time a group of parents brought their little children to Jesus to be blessed (Mark 10:13–16). Their great teacher had important places to go and important people to see, so the disciples tried to send them away. But Jesus rebuked them. ‘Let those little children come to me,’ he said. ‘For of such is God’s kingdom.’

Or take the time Jesus and his disciples were passing through Samaria, a region that ‘proper folks’ hated to pass through because its inhabitants were considered religiously and culturally ‘unclean’ (John 4:4–42). Jesus decided to wait outside the city while his companions went into town to buy lunch. When they returned, Jesus was sitting by a well, deep in a spiritual and theological conversation with a Samaritan woman . . . and one with a sketchy reputation at that. The sight of Jesus and this woman talking respectfully was a triple shock to the disciples: men didn’t normally speak with women as peers, Jews didn’t normally associate with Samaritans, and ‘clean’ people didn’t normally interact with those they considered morally stained.

Or take the time Jesus and his disciples, accompanied by a large crowd, passed a blind man along the road (Mark 10:46–52). The man seemed marginal and insignificant, just another beggar, and the people around told him to quiet down when he started crying out for mercy. But to Jesus, he mattered. The same thing happened when Jesus was on his way to heal the daughter of a synagogue official named Jairus (Mark 5:21– 43). Along the way, Jesus was touched by a woman with an embarrassing ‘female problem’ that rendered her ‘unclean’. She didn’t even think she was important enough to ask for Jesus’ help. Jesus healed her, publicly affirmed her value, and then he healed the official’s little girl. Little children, a Samaritan, a man who might today be classified as ‘disabled’ and ‘unemployed’, a frightened and ‘unclean’ woman, a little girl . . . they all mattered to Jesus.

It wasn’t just weak or vulnerable people whom Jesus considered important. Even more scandalous, he saw value in those considered by everyone to be notorious and sinful. Once, for example, Jesus and his companions were invited to a formal banquet (Luke 7:36–50). Imagine their shock when a woman known to be a prostitute sneaked into the gathering uninvited. Imagine their disgust when she came and honoured Jesus by washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. When the host indulged in predictably judgemental thinking about both the woman and Jesus, Jesus turned the tables and held her up as an example for all at the banquet to follow.

That host was a member of the Pharisees, a religious reform movement in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were pious, fastidious and religiously knowledgeable. They maintained a close association with ‘the scribes’, or religious scholars. Today some might call them ‘hyper-orthodox’ or ‘fundamentalist’. But back then most would have considered them pure and faithful people, the moral backbone of society.

From the start, the Pharisees seemed strangely fascinated with Jesus. When Jesus once claimed his disciples needed a moral rightness that surpassed their own, they must have been unsettled. How could anyone possibly be more upright than they? He further troubled them by his refusal to follow their practice of monitoring every action of every person as clean or unclean, biblical or unbiblical, legal or illegal. To make matters worse, he not only associated with ‘unclean’ people – he seemed to enjoy their company! The Pharisees just didn’t know what to do with a man like this. So they kept throwing questions at him, hoping to trap him in some misstatement.

Once they criticised Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath, their name for the seventh day of the week when no work was supposed to be done (Luke 14:1–6). Jesus asked them a question: If your son – or even your ox – falls into a hole on the Sabbath, will you wait until the next day to rescue him/it? By appealing to their basic humanity – kindness to their own children, if not their own beasts of burden – he implied that God must possess at least that level of ‘humanity’. In so doing, Jesus proposed that basic human kindness and compassion are more absolute than religious rules and laws. ‘The Sabbath was made for human beings,’ Jesus said in another debate with the Pharisees (Mark 2:27). ‘Human beings weren’t made for the Sabbath.’

Jesus often turned the condemning language of the Pharisees back on them (Matthew 23). ‘You travel over land and sea to make a single convert,’ he said, ‘and convert him into twice the son of hell he was before you converted him! You wash the outside of the cup but leave the inside filthy and putrid. You are like those who make beautiful tombs . . . slapping lots of white paint on the outside, only to hide rot and death inside!’

The contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees was nowhere clearer than in their attitude towards the multitudes. The Pharisees once looked at the multitudes and said, ‘This crowd doesn’t know the Scriptures – damn them all’ (John 7:49). But when Jesus looked at the multitudes, ‘he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36).

There are always multitudes at the bottom being marginalised, scapegoated, shunned, ignored and forgotten by elites at the top. And there are always those in the middle torn between the two.

To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to stand with the multitudes, even if doing so means being marginalised, criticised and misunderstood right along with them.



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 like one of the multitude, or when you behaved like one of the Pharisees.

3. How do you respond to the stories of Jesus engaging with ‘the multitudes’ and the Pharisees in this chapter?

4. For children: Think of one of the children in your class who is the least popular or who seems to have the fewest friends. What do you think that child wishes other children would do for him or her?

5. Activate: Make an opportunity this week to spend time with some member of ‘the multitude’.

6. Meditate: Think of some group of people you normally turn away from. Imagine them, in silence, and repeat these words: ‘They are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ Notice what happens to your heart as you do so.

Chapter 22


Chapter 22

Jesus theTeacher

Proverbs 3:1–26
Jeremiah 31:31–34
Mark 4:1–34

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables.

Who was Jesus? People in his day would have given many answers – a healer, a troublemaker, a liberator, a threat to law and order, a heretic, a prophet, a community organiser. His friends and foes would have agreed on this: he was a powerful teacher. When we scan the pages of the Gospels, we find Jesus teaching in many different ways.

First, he instructed through signs and wonders. By healing blindness, for example, Jesus dramatised God’s desire to heal our distorted vision of life. By healing paralysis, he showed how God’s reign empowers people who are weak or trapped. By calming a storm, he displayed God’s desire to bring peace. And by casting out unclean spirits, he conveyed God’s commitment to liberate people from occupying and oppressive forces – whether those forces were military, political, economic, social or personal.

Second, he gave what we might call public lectures. Crowds would gather for a mass teach-in on a hillside near the Sea of Galilee. Whole neighbourhoods might jam into a single house, and then spread around the open doors and windows, eager to catch even a few words. People came to hear him at weekly synagogue gatherings. Or they might catch word that he was down at the beach, sitting in a boat, his voice rising above the sounds of lapping waves and calling gulls to engage the minds and hearts of thousands standing on the sand.

Third, he taught at surprising, unplanned, impromptu moments – in transit from here to there, at a well along a road, at a dinner party when an uninvited guest showed up, in some public place when a group of his critics tried to ambush him with a ‘gotcha’ question. You always needed to pay attention, because with Jesus any moment could become a teaching moment.

Fourth, he saved much of his most important teaching for private retreats and field trips with his disciples. He worked hard to break away from the crowds so he could mentor those who would carry on his work. Certain places seemed the ideal setting for certain lessons.

Fifth, Jesus taught through what we might call public demonstrations. For example, he once led a protest march into Jerusalem, performing a kind of guerrilla-theatre dramatisation of a royal entry, while denouncing with tears the city’s ignorance of what makes for peace. Once he staged an act of civil disobedience in the temple, stopping business as usual and dramatically delivering some important words of instruction and warning. Once he demonstrated an alternative economy based on generosity rather than greed, inspired by a small boy’s fish-sandwich donation.

Sixth, Jesus loved to teach through finely crafted works of short fiction called parables. He often introduced these parables with these words: ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.’ He knew that most adults quickly sort messages into either/or categories – agree/disagree, like/dislike, familiar/strange. In so doing, they react and argue without actually hearing and thinking about what is being said. His parables drew his hearers into deeper thought by engaging their imagination and by inviting interpretation instead of reaction and argument. In this way, parables put people in the position of children who are more attracted to stories than to arguments. Faced with a parable, listeners were invited to give matters a second thought. They could then ask questions, stay curious and seek something deeper than agreement or disagreement – namely, meaning.

In all these overlapping ways, Jesus truly was a master-rabbi, capable of transforming people’s lives with a message of unfathomed depth and unexpected imagination. But what was the substance of his message? What was his point? Sooner or later, anyone who came to listen to Jesus would hear one phrase repeated again and again: the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven. Sadly, people today hear these words and frequently have no idea what they originally meant. Or even worse, they misunderstand the phrase with complete and unquestioning certainty.

For example, many think kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven means ‘where righteous people go when they die’, or ‘the perfect new world God will create after destroying this hopeless mess’. But for Jesus, the kingdom of heaven wasn’t a place we go up to one day; it was a reality we pray to come down here now. It wasn’t a distant future reality. It was at hand, or within reach, today. To better understand this pregnant term, we have to realise that kingdoms were the dominant social, political and economic reality of Jesus’ day. Contemporary concepts like nation, state, government, society, economic system, culture, superpower, empire and civilisation all resonate in that one word: kingdom.

The kingdom, or empire, of Rome in which Jesus lived and died was a top-down power structure in which the few on top maintained order and control over the many at the bottom. They did so with a mix of rewards and punishments. The punishments included imprisonment, banishment, torture and execution. And the ultimate form of torture and execution, reserved for rebels who dared to challenge the authority of the regime, was crucifixion. It was through his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire that Jesus did his most radical teaching of all.

Yes, he taught great truths through signs and wonders, public lectures, impromptu teachings, special retreats and field trips, public demonstrations and parables. But when he mounted Rome’s most powerful weapon, he taught his most powerful lesson.

By being crucified, Jesus exposed the heartless violence and illegitimacy of the whole top-down, fear-based dictatorship that nearly everyone assumed was humanity’s best or only option. He demonstrated the revolutionary truth that God’s kingdom wins not through shedding the blood of its enemies, but through gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies. He taught that God’s kingdom grows through apparent weakness rather than conquest. It expands through reconciliation rather than humiliation and intimidation. It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering. In short, on the cross Jesus demonstrated God’s non-violent non-compliance with the world’s brutal powers-that-be. He showed God to be a different kind of king, and God’s kingdom to be a different kind of kingdom.

How would we translate Jesus’ radical and dynamic understanding of the kingdom of God into our context today?

Perhaps a term like global commonwealth of God comes close – not a world divided up and ruled by nations, corporations and privileged individuals, but a world with enough abundance for everyone to share. Maybe God’s regenerative economy would work – challenging our economies based on competition, greed and extraction. Maybe God’s beloved community or God’s holy ecosystem could help – suggesting a reverent connectedness in dynamic and creative harmony. Or perhaps God’s sustainable society or God’s movement for mutual liberation could communicate the dynamism of this radical new vision of life, freedom and community.

Today, as in Jesus’ day, not everybody seems interested in the good news that Jesus taught. Some are more interested in revenge or isolation or gaining a competitive advantage over others. Some are obsessed with sex or a drug or another addiction. Many are desperate for fame or wealth. Still others can think of nothing more than relief from the pain that plagues them at the moment. But underneath even the ugliest of these desires, we can often discern a spark of something pure, something good, something holy – a primal desire for aliveness, which may well be a portal into the kingdom of God.

Interestingly, when the Gospel of John was written some years after its three counterparts, the term kingdom of God was usually translated into other terms: life, life of the ages, life to the full – which is clearly resonant with this word aliveness. However we name it – kingdom of God, life to the full, global commonwealth of God, God’s sustainable society, or holy aliveness – it is the one thing most worth seeking in life, because in seeking it we will find everything else worth having.

To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to seek first the kingdom and justice of God . . . to become a student of the one great subject Jesus came to teach in many creative ways.



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 one of the most important teachers in your life and what made him or her so significant.

3. How do you respond to the explanation of the term kingdom of God? How would you translate it into words or images that make sense today?

4. For children: What makes a good teacher so good? Who is one of your favourite teachers so far?

5. Activate: This week, notice where you seek and find aliveness. Relate that thirst for aliveness to the kingdom of God.

6. Meditate: Choose one of the synonyms for kingdom of God from this chapter and simply hold it in silence for a few moments. Conclude the silence with these words: ‘Let it come.’

Chapter 21


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.



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


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.



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


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.



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


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


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


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.



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


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.



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


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.



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


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.


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.



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


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?


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.