The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him… Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord.
What do you do when things go wrong?
Sometimes, you spot the mistake early enough and you can re-adjust. You can do a work-around. You can modify what you were doing in some way. It’s recoverable.
But what if you don’t spot the mistake until it is too late. What if the mistake is so big, so crucial, so serious, that no work-around is possible?
When I was a boy my Mom used to knit a lot of jumpers for the family. Aran jumpers and then Lopi sweaters were in vogue, both of which have quite complicated patterns.
Every now and then I would see my Mom quietly unravelling her knitting. She had gone wrong so badly that she had to undo a section and then re-do it. Rip it up and start again.
The lesson from the potter’s house is that if God’s people go wrong God has the right to rip us up and start again. If we are not achieving the purpose God wants us to have, being the community that God wants us to be, living out the values God wants us to embody – God can simply rip everything up and start again. God has the right to re-work His Church if it goes wrong.
As we see the Church of England, along with all pre-1900 denominations in the Northern hemisphere, in constant decline since 1900 and the C of E is predicted to disappear by 2060, we might wonder what is going on?
Is this God re-modelling a Church that has failed to make disciples, failed to take the message of Jesus to its communities, failed to hold on to the faith handed down from the apostles?
Is this a judgement? Is God re-working a Church that is no longer fit for purpose?
The situation is obviously more complex than that. A variety of factors are at play – the final dismantling of Christendom – a culture that had Christian values enshrined within it, and which tended to guide people towards the Church. Secularisation and its atheistic prophets ever more strident against faith in all its forms and Christianity in particular. So, it’s not a simple situation we find ourselves in.
But, nevertheless I do believe there is an element in God re-working His Church at play.
My experience has been that when the message of Jesus is presented in a relevant way, when people are given space and time to explore faith, to encounter Jesus in worship, to be part of a Christian community – they do respond.
The problem we have is that traditional forms of Church only enable this to happen to a very small part of the population; we need other ways alongside this to reach the vast majority of people for whom traditional church is unappealing, unhelpful, indecipherable – fresh expressions of Church.
As a church we have failed over a couple of generations to adapt, to change, to modify – not our message which is unchanging – but our way of presenting that message, in a way that engages, allows for exploration, gives opportunities for people to begin a faith journey.
We are recalcitrant clay, unwieldy wool, we need to be re-worked, ripped up, and to let God start again.
Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land! I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me.
The book of Jeremiah is quite difficult to read.
Jeremiah complains to God that the result of his speaking up for God in his community has been that the people just hate him.
It is hard to live amongst a group pf people that hate you.
In this and the following verses, Jeremiah tells God his story. He had responded to God’s word, he had found delight and joy in it, it had become for him a source of life and joy. Yet, when he tried to tell others about God they just despise him and don’t want to know. He complains that this isn’t what ministry should be like. Lots of vicars would agree!
He feels like God has let him down. People should listen to God’s word when he shares it with them. They should repent of their sin, turn to God in faith; they should honour him as God’s spokesperson. Instead, they reject God’s word, hate Jeremiah and want him dead.
What is God’s response to Jeremiah’s complaint? Does God sympathise? Does God say, “Oh, I know, isn’t it awful?” No, God’s response is basically, “Suck it up Jeremiah!”
Therefore, thus says the Lord:
If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them. And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.
You see when God initially called Jeremiah to be His prophet, this is what God said to him.
“Get yourself ready. Stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not be intimidated by them, or I will terrify you before them. Now behold, this day I have made you like a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you but will never overcome you, since I am with you to deliver you,” declares the LORD.”
So, the initial call to be God’s messenger had within it the sense that his ministry would be a failure.
He would not be listened to.
He would be hated and opposed.
But the promise God gave him, was that God would be with him.
So in our reading, when Jeremiah complains at how things have worked out, God simply repeats what He said at the start;
“And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord.”
That’s a tough message.
How do we make sense of this?
In Matthew’s gospel we read;
‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
This reading talks about finding treasure. Something so precious and valuable, that you sacrifice everything you have in order to get it.
How do these two readings sit together?
Well the gospel reading tells us that faith – coming to know God, being restored into relationship with Him through Jesus – is the most valuable, precious, amazing thing we could ever have. It brings us into life with a capital L. Life to the full, life with God, life with meaning and significance, life forever.
To get something like that you need to be prepared to sacrifice everything else in your life in order to take hold of it. It is that important, that valuable, that precious.
But Jeremiah’s experience tells us that just because life with God is wonderful and precious doesn’t mean it will be easy.
It doesn’t mean others will approve, or congratulate us, or support us. Jeremiah’s story makes that point very clearly.
But God’s promise is to be with us, to protect us, to watch over us; actually, to delight in us as His beloved children. And not just for the duration of our earthly lives, but for eternity.
So what do we take away from these readings?
Life with God is a wondrous life-giving, wonder, honour and privilege. But not necessarily an easy ride. There are times when you will have to tough it out in the face of opposition, ridicule, misunderstanding, even hatred.
But God promises to be with you.
And with God on your side you are never outnumbered.
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
The disciples come to Jesus and ask Him for a lesson on how to pray.
What intrigues me is ‘Why did the disciples ask Jesus for a lesson on prayer?’
I mean, Jesus did a lot of incredible things. He performed miracles – turning water into wine, multiplying bread and fish to feed a multitude, walking on water. So, why did the disciples not ask Jesus to teach them how to do this sort of stuff?
Jesus also preached amazingly. He made up incredible parables – such simple stories which managed to communicate deep spiritual truths. The disciples might have asked Jesus to teach them how to construct a really good parable.
Jesus also healed a lot of people from physical illness and disability – the deaf, heard, the lame, walked again, the blind, were made to see. The disciples could well have asked, Jesus, teach us how to do these amazing miracles.
Jesus also cast out demons, released people from powerful spiritual oppression. That might have also been something that the disciples could have asked Jesus for some special teaching on.
Jesus crafted incrediblt parables. Simple stories drawn from everyday life, yet these stories communicated deep spiritual truths in an amazing way. Why did the disciples not come to Jesus and ask for a lesson on how to write a really good parable?
But no. They don’t ask about any of that. What they want to know is how to pray. Why?
My suggestion to you is that they asked this question because what they had seen in Jesus a deep and regular engagement in prayer. They seem to have realised that Jesus’ ability to do all the other stuff was somehow rooted in his life of prayer.
Very often in the gospels we read of Jesus going away on his own to pray. Throughout his three-year ministry Jesus will often even interrupt what looks like really successful ministry, in order to go away to be alone and to pray.
Also, before every key event, or decision, Jesus is shown going away alone to pray. It is clear that prayer wasn’t an optional extra for Jesus – something to do when, and if, you have the time. Rather it was the foundation, the source of his ministry.
The disciples seem to have noticed that. They had come to realise that if they were to be able to do the kinds of things that Jesus did, it would only be if they learned to pray like Jesus.
So, they come and ask him. And Jesus responds by giving them a model for prayer. It is not really something to recite, but rather a structure for their own prayers.
‘Father, hallowed be your name’. – You start with a focus on God – his praise, his glory.
‘Your kingdom come’ – You pray that the world would be conformed to God’s will, that His kingdom would come.
‘Give us each day our daily bread’ – Then you present to God your needs for the day ahead.
‘And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’ – Then you confess your sins, remembering that first you need to have forgiven anyone who has offended you.
‘And do not bring us to the time of trial’ – Then you ask for God’s protection from all that might assail you and oppose you as you seek to do His will.
In effect Jesus gives them a very simple structure for their prayers. Nothing complex, no mysterious insights, no magic words, no secret incantations. just a straight-forward model to follow.
And we know that it was something the disciples put into practice. Eusebius, was the bishop of Caesarea in the 4th-century. He wrote a pioneering work giving a chronological account of the development of Early Christianity from the 1st century to the 4th century. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius writes about St James in Book II, Ch. XXIII:
“And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.”
Eusebius ‘Ecclesiastical History’ Book II, Ch. XXIII
St James spent so much time in prayer that his knees developed callouses and it seems that ‘Camel Knees’ was a nickname that he was known by.
I was talking to a fellow curate about prayer and we were talking about how we use our bodies in worship, and he said to me, “One thing I have noticed is that when I am really serious in my prayers, I find that I’m always on my knees.”
This challenged me, because I think it is true, So, I have a list of people that I pray for each day – people I care about – family and friends, people I know from my village, people from my benefice, the local schools, people who have asked me to pray for them etc. etc. and I have now decided to do it on my knees.
Now, you may have a physical issue that means kneeling is not good for you – so don’t do anything stupid. But if you can. You might find kneeling is the proper posture for prayer. It reminds of of the need for humility before God.
Ultimately, the lesson to take away from these readings is – if you pray stuff happens.
Or, negatively expressed, people who don’t pray much, don’t see much happen spiritually – either in their own lives, or in the lives of those around them.
In James 4:2 there is a nightmare verse. One of those verses that can make you break out in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
“You do not have, because you do not ask.”
Now, I am not promising you that if you start meeting to pray that you will see an incredible movement of God. I don’t know what God’s plans are.
All I know is that without prayer there is no chance of anything happening.
And that verse from James haunts me, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”
Jesus needed to pray – a lot. It is highly likely that we need to do that too.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?
So, a religious expert in the law comes to Jesus to ask him a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
So, what is he asking? Is he asking Jesus if there is some sort of elixir of immortality, like in Indiana Jones? Some magical thing that can help him cheat death and live forever?
Well, no. Because this religious lawyer would have known his Old Testament scriptures and from them he knew that human beings are specifically time-limited creatures. We are made to die. It is built into our bodies. In earthly terms, human existence is fundamentally tragic, it always ends badly.
The Bible would also have told him that this wasn’t God’s original intention. In the Garden of Eden we are told that there were two trees at the centre of the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve were prohibited from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but NOT from the Tree of Life. It was only after the Fall that Adam and Eve were banned from the Garden so that they couldn’t have access to the Tree of Life, so that their days would be limited. In the book of Revelation, where it describes eternal life with God, we read that the Tree of Life stands in the middle of the heavenly city – we have our access restored.
Now, all of this is poetic language, rather than descriptive prose. But it is telling us a deep truth that mortality is a temporary aberration, that death shouldn’t happen to us, it is not what God wanted for us, and ultimately God will remove its hold on us.
So, this Jewish lawyer comes to Jesus and he wants to know what he has to do in order that death would not be the end of his existence. How can he gain eternity?
Now, that’s a good question. You might say it is the most important question. In fact, it is the one question that you had better find the answer to in your lifetime.
So, what was Jesus’ response?
Love God above everything else.
Love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.
Which you might think is an odd response. Jesus is saying that eternal life is the outcome of a relationship. Put more simply, God will not allow Himself to be separated from his friends, or better, from those He has adopted as His children.
So, if you have turned towards God in repentance and faith, which involves turning away from all the behaviour that is opposed to God, then eternal life is yours. It’s not what you know, it’s Who you know.
Now, from the lawyer’s perspective the first of these statements of Jesus is ok. As a lawyer, the guy is probably thinking, “I’m confident I could make a good case for myself about my loving God. If I do a few visible things – like go to synagogue every Sabbath, give money to charity, live according to the Law of Moses. If I do all that, and I’m quite confident I could make a pretty good case that I’m loving God pretty well.”
But the second one is harder – I mean, loving your neighbour as much as you love yourself! People are going to notice if you do that. That’s going to be difficult and costly. It is also dangerously wide in scope.
So, as a good lawyer, this guy thinks, “Let’s work on the definitions. Let’s gets some clarity here. Let’s see if we can’t narrow this down to more manageable proportions.” The lawyer is looking for Jesus to give him a nice technical response, delineating the boundaries, something like;
Your neighbour is anyone who lives within 50 metre arc from your front door.
Who has also been resident there for a period of continual occupation of not less than two calendar years with no breaks in residency of more than two weeks consecutively in any 12 month period.
Who has not personally, or through any member of his household, in any way caused you difficulty, inconvenience, aggravation, or offense during the entire period of occupation.
That’s a nice legal, tight definition. It’s narrow, manageable, and, for a lawyer, it lends itself to the possibility of lots of exclusions.
But Jesus’ response takes things completely in the opposite direction. Jesus’ response is to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. The moral of that parable is that;
“Your neighbour is anyone who needs your help – even if it is your most hated enemy.”
Wow! That’s wide, unmanageable, inclusive. For a lawyer, it’s a nightmare.
So, I wonder how this 2,000-year-old conversation impacts us today?
Does it make us feel uncomfortable? Do we maybe feel that following Jesus might lead us into areas we don’t want to go? Does it seem to place upon us obligations that we don’t want to carry? Are we, like the lawyer, trying to puts limits on what Jesus might be calling us to do? Where are our boundaries, our red lines, our limits?
In the ordination liturgy priests are told;
“You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Now, whilst the Church of England makes some people priests in a particular sense – for leadership – all of us, by our baptism are ordained priests in a general sense; what is known as “the priesthood of all believers”.
So we ALL are called, ALL ordained to function as priests in the world. As priests we ALL stand between God and the world and try, by our prayers, through our words, by our lives, by our very being, by just being who we are – to enable a connection between God and the world – which is the function of priesthood.
Now, that is a massive calling! So, those words from the ordinal are true for us all, “You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength.”
The only thing that will enable us to live up to our calling as priests, in whatever sense we are called to, is through what the ordinal tells us to do, that by daily prayer we may receive the grace and power of God, that our hearts may be enlarged, that our understanding of scripture enlightened, and that the Holy Spirit’s power may be released in our lives.
We are presented in this exchange with the religious lawyer is the stark challenge of loving God above all else and loving our neighbours as much as we love ourselves – something we cannot do this in our own strength – and that is the whole point of the story.
We need God’s love and God’s strength to enlarge our hearts so that we can do it.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.* Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Martha seems to get somewhat unfair treatment in this reading. In fact, when we hear of Martha and Mary, it is Martha who always comes off badly. Mary is the super-spiritual one, Martha is just rushing around doing stuff.
But wasn’t Martha doing good work? Wasn’t hospitality an almost sacred duty in Jewish culture? Wouldn’t Jesus and his disciples be expecting food on the table at mealtime? I mean, who else was going to prepare it?
Also, the contrast with other Bible readings is provocative. In Genesis 18, when Abraham has three mysterious visitors arrive, his hospitality is painted in a very different light. They both have guests that arrive. They both rush around making preparations for hospitality. Abraham leaves his guests and runs off and sets massive preparations underway in order to offer a lavish feast to his guests; Martha busies herself in the kitchen getting a meal ready. But Abraham gets praised for it whilst Martha is castigated. Why the difference?
Is it because Martha had to do the work herself, whereas Abraham had Sarah and slaves to do all the work? Is this another way in which the rich are blessed and the poor get it in the neck?
I would like to suggest that Martha was actually a quite remarkable woman, there are a few clues that show this to us.
In a very patriarchal time, she was a woman who ran her own household. The reading tells us ‘Martha welcomed Jesus into HER home. So she was the head of the household.
Now, for a woman to invite a man into her home was unusual in this culture. Welcoming Jesus and his disciples into her house was the fullest form of hospitality Martha could have offered and it involved substantial generosity.
Martha must also have been a woman of means as her home is large enough to welcome Jesus and his disciples to stay and she has enough food to feed them all.
Martha shows another form of courage too. Jesus was a dangerous friend to have, the authorities – both civil and religious, had Jesus on their radar. It was dangerous to associate too closely with Jesus, people were watching. The authorities were already trying to find a way to kill Jesus. But Martha was willing to face the consequences and let everyone know of her devotion to Jesus.
Martha seems to be so comfortable with Jesus that she has no problem rebuking him for what she sees as his failure to send Mary to help her. She vents her frustration;
‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’
Martha is effectively saying, “Tell Mary to fulfil the traditional woman’s role.”
Martha’s outburst was not unreasonable. In the culture of the time, women did not sit at the feet of a rabbi and listen to him teach. They stayed in the home, they cooked, they cleaned, they washed the clothes, they usually never learned to read or write. It was only boys who went to school.
So Mary, sitting down at the feet of Jesus and listening to his teaching alongside a group of men, was strongly counter-cultural, unthinkable, scandalous even!
There is an interesting fact about Mary of Bethany. Every time she appears in the Bible, she is described as sitting at Jesus’ feet.
Here we read, “Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”
Later when Lazarus dies and Jesus goes to raise him from the dead, we are told Mary went to Jesus and “fell at his feet.” (John 11:32 NIV).
In a third instance in John 12:1-8, Mary was at a dinner given in Jesus’ honour. We are told that Mary took expensive perfume worth about a year’s wages for a labourer – £25k in today’s money, which is a sign of her wealth – and she poured it on Jesus’ feet and sat and wiped his feet with her long hair. Again Mary is shown as sitting at the feet of Jesus.
Incidentally, Martha is also at this event, what is she doing? She is described as serving the meal.
It is not an accident that in every appearance of Mary we are shown her sitting at Jesus’ feet. She is being presented as perhaps the most ardent disciple Jesus had. She crosses cultural obstacles that would normally have excluded a woman from being a disciple of a Rabbi and she is willing to break the social norms of women in the kitchen and the men doing the learning. She is determined to learn all she could of Jesus’ teaching.
So, what does Jesus do in response to Martha’s rebuke about his failure to do the right thing and tell Mary to help her?
Firstly, we note that Jesus doesn’t take offense, but he calmly explains that Mary has made a good choice, even the better choice, the choice to be his disciple, and he will not take that away from her. Mary has prioritized listening to Jesus over her traditional and expected female role. Jesus affirms this and breaks the social taboo over the role of women, he encourages Mary’s desire to listen and learn.
Note that Jesus didn’t say that Martha’s service wasn’t valuable or important. But Jesus wanted Martha to realise two things;
Being His disciple and learning about His teachings come first. All other things are secondary.
Secondly, Jesus tells her she was “worried and distracted about many things.” We get a sense that Martha was an activist, hurrying and bustling about, doing lots of, no doubt good, kind and generous things. But this was done to such an extent that it was killing her spiritual life. Martha’s fixation on being the perfect hostess was creating anxiety, bringing negative feelings towards her sister, and had even led her to a public outburst of pique towards Jesus. Jesus’ response is to invite Martha to find balance. Do all your wonderful good, kind and generous work, but don’t neglect your own spiritual life.
What are the lessons for us today. The ‘So what?’ question.
Well the obvious one is who do we see ourselves as in this story? Are we Mary or Martha?
Are we, like Mary, able to prioritise the spiritual so that we make time to “sit at Jesus’ feet”. Are we able to send time listening to Jesus in prayer, learning of him in Bible reading and study, are we paying enough attention to be able to notice the Holy Spirit’s promptings in our daily life?
Or are we, like Martha, “worried and distracted by many things?” Racing from one thing to another, with a noisy mind that can’t cope with stillness, quiet, can’t make space for God, is that killing our spiritual life?
But looking at Martha’s good points, have we, like Martha, the courage to identify with Jesus publicly, even when that may not go down well?
Like Martha, are we willing to generously offer our resources to Jesus for him to use? How do you see yourself? How is God prompting you to respond to this gospel reading?
We call him ‘Doubting Thomas’. His name has become an expression we use about people when we feel they are not sufficiently trusting. We say, “Stop being a doubting Thomas!” But I wonder if St Thomas deserves that? Should we not think of him as the most honest disciple? The man with sufficient courage about his own convictions that he was not prepared to just go along with everyone else, the groupthink, when he wasn’t entirely sure?
Jesus had a nickname for his disciples ‘oligopistos’ which is something Jesus made up, literally two Greek words put together – Little-faiths. Jesus did so many miracles, performed such wonders, taught such divine insights … and yet the disciples still struggled to believe in him. So as a gently-chiding nickname Jesus refers to them as the ‘little-faiths’.
But eleven of these ‘little-faiths’ would ultimately choose to be martyred rather than deny their faith in Jesus as their God and Saviour.
These ‘little-faiths’ would take the message of Jesus not only throughout Palestine but to Europe. St Thomas even took the message of Jesus to India. There he chose to be martyred rather than deny his faith in the risen Christ.
There may have been a time when their faith was little – but it grew.
In the Church of England we baptise children and babies. We do so knowing that at this point in their lives they are incapable of faith. So, at their baptism it is their parents and godparents who believe for them.
But we do so with the prayer, the hope, and the expectation, that, through receiving the sacrament of baptism and God’s Spirit coming upon them, that as they grows, as their parents, their godparents, and their church community teach them about Jesus and show them the difference that Jesus makes, their faith may grow. Until one day they will stand before a bishop and confirm their faith.
So, the important question is not so much ‘How big is your faith?’ But ‘Are you feeding your faith?’
Are you doing those things that will enable your faith to grow? Are you receiving the sacraments? Are you reading and meditating upon scripture, discussing it with others? Are you regularly hearing the word of God preached? Are you saying your prayers each day? It is these disciplines that cause faith to grow.
The good thing about St Thomas was that although he found it difficult to believe in the risen Jesus without the evidence of his own eyes, he did say that if he saw the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, if he could see the spear wound in Jesus’ side, then he would believe.
St Thomas was at least willing to be convinced, he was open to the possibility of faith. Jesus responded to that honesty and openness. St Thomas had his own encounter with the risen Jesus. His response was to fall to his kness and say, ‘My Lord and God!’
What about you? How little is your faith today? Be honest, like St Thomas. Is it huge – are you all-in with Jesus, is he real to you? Or is your faith tiny. You’re not even sure you believe, but something calls to you?
And, more importantly, do you want your faith to grow? If so, feed it.
“God’s powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything.”
Cutting through everything – so not dry and dusty. Not words imprisoned on a page.
Did you ever see the Harry Potter library in Hogwarts?
There were some forbidden books, books so dangerous that they were chained up, because they jumped out at you, they attacked you.
Well, in a positive way, the Bible is like that. The Holy Spirit works in our reading and hearing the Bible and often jumps out at us.
You may have read something a hundred times, and yet today, something you’ve never noticed before will jump out at you, catch your attention, make an impression – that is a meeting with you and God happening, right there.
I am reading a rather amazing book at the moment, .
This quote struck me;
“People submerged in a culture swarming with lies and malice feel as if they are drowning in it: they can trust nothing they hear, depend on no one they meet. Such dissatisfaction with the world as it is is preparation for travelling in the way of Christian discipleship. The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God… As long as we think the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay rise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquillity, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of a life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the way of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.”
‘A Long Obedience in the Same Direction’ by Eugene PETERSON
I wonder if that describes you? I believe it describes more and more people in our society.
We are not stupid.
We see governments change, yet everything remains the same.
We see scientific advances, yet the human-being itself seems incapable of improvement.
If we are hard-working and fortune smiles on us, we see out financial circumstances improve and yet we are still unsatisfied, still seeking something we can’t quite name. Yet we know enough to know that what we are looking for is not what the advertisers tell us will be the answer to all our needs.
Where do we go? What do we do?
All I can tell you is that the Christian faith offers, to those who are seeking, some things that you will find nowhere else;
Cleansing and forgiveness for the mess we have all made of our lives.
The possibility of meaning, purpose, and significance that can be given to each moment we are alive as we choose to live it in God with God and for God.
The hope for a life to come beyond death.
The indwelling power of God to transform us and guide us moment by moment.
If this feels like it might be what you are looking for then I advise you to look into Jesus.
I will not mislead you. The life of faith is, as Peterson says, ‘arduous and uncertain’. There is no easy ride offered here.
But, for going on 2,000 years, billions of people have found in Jesus the answer to the unexpressed question that has haunted their existence.
In Revelation we see a no-holds-barred contest between the Dragon and a Woman.
The Woman has generally been interpreted as being Mary as she gives birth to a child (Jesus) who the Dragon (Satan) wants to kill.
Later scholars have seen the Woman also as a symbol of the Church, but both meanings are likely.
The idea of Mary in deadly combat with the Dragon fuelled medieval imaginations and I recently came across some images of Mary that I found surprising, delightful and also quite moving.
In these images Mary is not meek or mild, rather she is ‘Masher Mary’, the Dragon-buster.
In the image above from a prayer book created in 1240 and illustrated by the Warwickshire manuscript illuminator William de BRAILES, Mary is shown punching the Devil in the face .
In another medieval dating from around 1275 ‘Martyrologe-obituaire de l’abbaye Notre-Dame des Prés de Douai’ Mary hits the Devil over the head with a club .
In a third book Sarum Book of the Hours from around 1330, Mary is shown in a grappling contest with the Devil while a baby Jesus is praying for her, held by an angel.
These images can be better understood if we remember an event that happened during Jesus’ crucifixion.
Dying on the cross Jesus spoke to his Mother, Mary and the disciple Jesus loved (John).
25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” 27 Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.
This has been understood by some to indicate that Mary has a special role within the Church. That she is, in some sense, the Mother of all Christians.
When we understand that Mary is a symbol of the Church who is our spiritual mother, then some of these more combative images of Mary take on a new significance.
Whilst many images of Mary show here being beautifully nurturing we only have to think of a lioness and her cubs to realise that there is another side to motherhood too. A feisty side, a ‘don’t mess with my children side’.
It is good to remember that the Church, in her prayers and worshipping life is working for the protection of her children.
Those who have received baptism are in a particularly spiritually advantageous position as being under the protection of the Church and benefiting from the prayer of Mary.
As you think of mothers on Mothering Sunday you might want to hold these images alongside the cherishing, nurturing ones.
Take comfort in the fact that Mary, your Mother, has your back. And no one messes with her children!
But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’
In this verse Abram looks at his life and he is worried and confused. Many years ago God had appeared to Abram and called him into relationship with himself and as part of that call were some amazing promises.
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;
Abram had kept his part of the bargain.
He had left his family and home and followed God. He had lived a life of mostly faithfulness to God. And some things had worked out. He had become very wealthy.
But there was a massive problem, he is old and still childless. What made it worse was that Abram’s very name means ‘Exalted Father’. It was a cruel irony.
So where is God’s promise? What do you do when God lets you down?
In the New Testament we see Jesus facing a similar issue.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Jesus has healed the sick, he has delivered the spiritually oppressed, he has preached and taught, yet still he is opposed and side-lined by the religious establishment.
He is regarded as troublesome by the political powers. He is mostly just seen as a curiosity by the people.
So, where is the fulfilment of the great Messianic prophecies of the glorious eternal king? How does this stack up with what Daniel prophesied?
And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
Compared to that glorious messianic prophecy what does Jesus have? A raggle-taggle bunch of a few scruffy fisherman. It is small beer.
So, what do you do when God lets you down?
And for all Christians, this is not a merely abstract, intellectual conundrum – this is a very real issue that we all face in our lives. Like Abram and Jesus we read lots of wonderful promises God makes to us in the Bible;
Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits— who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Which is beautiful prose. And this is just one instance of dozens of places in the Psalms and wider throughout scripture where God’s seems to promise things that, frankly, are far beyond that which we actually experience in real life.
It seems like God over-promises and under-delivers.
Now, in the abstract, that’s one thing, but when it hits you in real life it is very painful.
My father was a vicar, a devout man, who had given up a lot to follow God’s call. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 60. He prayed, he went to people who God has used to heal people and had them pray for him. But he died, as predicted, 3 years later after a lot of suffering.
So, we have a God who ‘heals all your diseases’? Really? Is God a liar?
Is this all just wishful thinking? Are these statements just nice platitudes to make us feel good, even if we can’t really believe them? Or do they actually tell us something vitally true and important?
What do you do when God lets you down?
The answer, I’m afraid, is complicated.
One of the central beliefs of the Christian faith is that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Kingdom of God – the Messianic Kingdom – was established as a definitive reality.
In that event all that stands in opposition to God and God’s will was completely defeated; and sickness, suffering and death are not part of God’s will for human beings.
But that victory of Christ will only be fully and finally expressed at Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time.
So, we live in the complicated time of ‘Now and Not Yet’. The Kingdom of God is here as a present reality, but not in an unopposed way, not as fully expressed.
So, we do see some signs of Jesus’ rule and reign. From a band of 12 scruffy fisherman the Christian faith has grown to the level that approximately 2.4 billion people, about one-third of the world’s total population, practice some form of Christianity. That’s pretty amazing for a movement started 2,000 years ago by a carpenter in an obscure village in the Middle East.
We also have millions of testimonies from people all over the world down through 2,000 years of history who tell of the difference that following Jesus has made in their lives. We do have stories of miraculous healing – of body, soul and spirit. We do have stories of the transformation of relationships, families, communities, societies and nations as the message of Jesus empowered by the Spirit of Jesus has worked in people’s hearts.
So, there are some signs of the Kingdom of God amongst us, there is some evidence that Jesus rules and reigns. And yet, that is not the whole picture. We still live in a disordered world. Liars, cheats and thieves still prospering in our world. We still see men of violence oppressing others with seeming impunity. Death and disease are still a part of life. There is still an awful lot of misery in the world.
So, what do we make of all this? Well, as Christians we are in the happy situation of knowing how the story ends;
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” … And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.””
This passage tells us that all these wonderful verses from the Bible will be fully true one day. At present they are only intermittently true, partially true – sometimes God heals, sometimes God intervenes, sometimes the wicked get their comeuppance.
In order to be completely transparent, I want to say that at is heart evil and suffering remain a deep mystery at the heart of the Christian faith. Some people refuse to believe in a God who would allow the awful suffering and misery that we see in the world – and I get that, I can understand and respect people who feel that way.
The only thing that I can tell you is that when I’m trying to make sense of these this I find myself going back again and again to the cross.
I believe that on the cross Jesus proved to us beyond question and beyond refutation how much God loves us. In his agonising death Jesus stretched out his arms and said, “This is how much I love you”.
We may not know why there is suffering, but we do know that God suffers with us.
God has skin in the game.
So, what do we do when God lets us down? Well, firstly, you hold your nerve. My wife is from the Kennedy clan and their motto is ‘Avise le fin’ ‘Look to the end’. That’s good advice for Christians. St Paul writes;
“Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”
1 Corinthians 4:5
As for our Bible readings, Abraham did become a great nation.
Jesus is King of the Universe and He will be revealed as that when He comes in glory.
In the meantime, we live in the complexity of the ‘Now and Not Yet’.
What do we do when it feels like God has let us down?
We hold our nerve, we look to the end, we turn to cross. And, for me at least, that is enough.