The Gay Floods ?

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Recently, (January 2014), an otherwise unknown and unremarked local town councillor gained brief notoriety because he wrote to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to tell him that the recent severe floods in the south of England were divine punishment for his having legalised gay marriage.

This was the cause of much hilarity and much lampooning in the press. The councillor’s political party took pains to distance themselves from him, his local council are undertaking disciplinary measures against him, and even the councillor’s own church were quick to step back from his position.

All of which, due to my contrary nature, encouraged me to think about whether the man could be right? Does God still do that kind of stuff? Do nations nowadays have to pay a price for flouting the divine will? Is blasting and pestilence still the divine response to human wickedness?

The Old Testament contains quite a lot of that sort of thing. Although, it must be noted that the people of God are the prime concern of God, the surrounding nations seem to be less targeted. Which is only logical. Only Israel was in a covenant relationship with God and this covenant specified very clearly that there were certain blessings to be expected for obedience to the divine will and that certain curses would be the divine chastening response for acts of disobedience, and all these were to be experienced at a national level (Leviticus 26).

The surrounding nations seem to be a target for divine judgement more in view of how their behaviour impacted upon Israel, which, again, has a certain logic in the divine history of revelation and redemption.

In general terms blessing and cursing seem to be both the natural consequences of certain actions and also a divine response that goes beyond what might be expected. The Levitical regulations for social organisation contain directives about access to justice, limitations on the powerful, protections for the weakest members of society. One might naturally expect that a society which embodies these positive values might be harmonious and thrive – which would be a natural blessing for obedience to God’s will. However it is clear from the list of blessings that they go beyond this naturalistic effect.

Similarly a society that embodies all the various behaviours that God condemns would be riven with dishonesty, injustice, oppressive and one might well expect it to implode socially, politically and economically. However, once again the divine curses for this kind of behaviour go beyond this.

Thus there are clearly two interrelated mechanisms in operation – a naturalistic cause and effect and also an over-arching divine response which amplifies, or goes beyond what is simply natural.

It must also be noted that the cursing / blessing mechanism contains many anomalies. The book of Jonah recounts the clearest of these. The violent, oppressive and bloodthirsty nation of Assyria is not to be destroyed as would be expected, but rather to be the recipient of a divine invitation to repent.

Even within Israel, the blessing / cursing system seems to be somewhat inconsistent in application. Indeed many of the psalms are based upon the painful experience of this. The psalmist cries out to God asking why he, a devout, God-fearing man, is experiencing disaster and shame whilst the wicked prosper (Psalm 73)?

It is these texts that give us the key to the problem, as the psalmist finishes by remembering that he has not yet seen the end of the story. That justice will be done ultimately, even if not in this life-time.

“When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me,
till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny” (Psalm 73:16-17, NIV)

It is this idea of present incompleteness that Galatians 6 picks up on.

“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction;
the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Let us not become weary in doing good,
for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7-9, NIV)

But where does this leave us regarding our current problem?

We note that the New Testament is devoid of divine activity at a national level. Jesus was ambivalent towards the occupying (and brutal) Roman army (Matthew 22:21), much to the chagrin of the messianic currents in contemporary Judaism. We have no prophetic words in the New Testament addressed to nations warning them of the consequences of rejecting the divine ordinances for behaviour.

Judgment is strictly limited to the people of God – the Church. We see many instances where divine blessing and divine cursing is directed towards congregations and towards individual Christians (Acts 5, 1 Corinthians 11:30, Revelations 2-3).

This is what we would logically expect if the Church has indeed become the locus of divine activity in the same way that the Jewish nation was under the old covenant.

Now it is the Church, individual congregations, Christians who are the focus of God’s activity. It is we who represent him on earth, it is we who are charged with accomplishing his will, it is we therefore who are under his discipline and will experience his gracious blessing on our obedience and his fatherly chastisement when we go astray.

Again, as in the Old Testament, this will not be experienced in a mechanistic idealised manner. God is gracious and gives us time to repent, therefore wrong decisions, or actions do not release an immediate response. Also God often works in our lives through hardship and difficulty. Thus not all negative experience is a result of divine displeasure. (It must also be noted that neither can success and ease be correlated in a simple manner to divine blessing).

So what about the issue of the “Gay Floods”? Can we now make some definitive statement about that?

I think the first thing to say is to repeat the oft-quoted phrase that judgment starts with the house of God.

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household;
and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17, NIV)

It is the Church that is God’s primary locus of action, it is the Church and churches that will therefore be the first to experience God’s blessing and cursing upon their actions.

When prophets rise up to condemn wickedness, it is the Church that they address first and foremost. It is the people of God, we who have sworn ourselves to God’s worship and service, who have chosen to join ourselves unbreakably to him and for eternity, it is we whose behaviour is under divine scrutiny.

That said, to the question “Do nations still experience curses for their disobedience to divine ordinances?” I would reply “Absolutely”.

The naturalistic effects of choosing to operate in a way that is opposed to God’s will must always bring negative consequences.

One can look at the rejection of marriage as a permanent institution and see that the consequences have been negative – for the individuals concerned (studies show that long-term people are no happier and that they are economically impoverished by divorce) , children (studies show they tend to do less well in terms of schooling, studies and their own relationships tend to follow the model of their parents), society (a large proportion of households have to be supported by the state due to the impoverishment that occurs – particularly for women).

We can look at the connected issue of sexual morality and see that the social consequences have been disastrous – teenage pregnancy and the concomitant effects in terms of economic and personal achievement that often follow; an explosion in sexual disease and the infertility issues that can result.

We can look at the rejection of honesty and integrity as essential elements in business life, political life, and general social interaction and see that the results have been disastrous. There is no longer any element of trust or confidence in anything other than legally binding agreements; politicians are scorned and treated with contempt as their words are almost never trustworthy, we have even invented a new form of lying called “spinning” especially for this. We are having to try to bring in more and more legal regulation of areas of economic and political life in order to thwart such behaviour e.g. politician’s expenses, banker’s salaries and bonuses.

The moot question is therefore not do we experience cursing for disobedience – we certainly do and are – but rather does God act beyond these naturalistic effects?

This I think is less clear. Nations do not seem to be the main locus of divine action – the Church is.

Certainly God can and does control the fate of humankind and the nations form part of this and, as such, they rise and fall at his command.

I can’t help wondering that if God were to decide to punish a nation for disobedience, what would that look process look like?

God would certainly send a prophet to warn the nation beforehand.

From the experience of Old Testament history, those prophets would certainly be mocked, derided and held up for widespread contempt.

Rather like what happened to a certain town councillor.

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Expose Sin, Save Society

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The visions of your prophets were false and worthless ;
they did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity. (Lamentations 2:14, NIV)

Some of the Old Testament is hard to read. Perhaps Lamentations is one of the most unpleasant books.

Here, the story of the destruction of the people of God and of their capital city Jerusalem, with its glorious temple, is recounted; and in graphic detail.

All the imaginable and unimaginable horrors of war are present.

Suffering, destruction, desperation, defeat, despair.

The root cause of this is starkly stated in the above verse. The prophetic function was corrupted, the sins of the people of God were left unchallenged and unchecked. In such a situation the cursings of the Covenant for disobedience were put into effect – the last remaining mechanism whereby God can draw His people back to Him.

The Covenant between God and His people had two supports – the priestly office, which worked day by day to teach the people how they should live, to call them to a radically holy life in which values such as justice, mercy, honesty, faithfulness, kindness were expressed.

Should this office fail – should the priests themselves be corrupted and fall from the standards of the Covenant – there was a second line of defence – the prophets.

These prophets were raised up by God in moments of need to call both priests and people back to covenantal obedience.

However, the above verse exposes one of the crucial problems – false prophets. Prophets who instead of exposing the failings and weaknesses amongst the people of God, would rather paint over them, hide them, pretend they weren’t there.

Indeed the word which describes these prophets messages “worthless”, literally means “whitewashed”. The image is explained in Ezekiel 10 where a crumbling wall is given a coat of whitewash to hide its weakness and fragility. However, the first rain comes and the wall immediately collapses.

It looked solid, but its solidity was a lie.

When society moves away from God’s will it is the function of priests to call society back. To present the call for repentance and return.

When the priests themselves are caught up in the social slide into sin, it is the function of prophets to call both to repentance.

When the prophets fail and join the priests and society in their sinful behaviour there is no more hope.

The only mechanism that remains is that of divine judgement upon the apostate nation. The hope that crisis and suffering will bring people to their knees before God, bring awareness of sin, bring repentance and return.

In surveying contemporary society I wonder where we are in this cycle?

Contemporary has rejected most of the constraints of Christian faith. Our society is marked by dishonesty, injustice, division, the oppression of the poor, sexual immorality and unethical behaviour is accepted at every level.

The priestly function has largely failed to prevent even those active within the Church from following the sinful behaviour of secular society.

Where are the prophets? Are their voices even heard? It seems that for every one person who is calling for repentance there are ten who are saying that there is no problem, all is well.

Either contemporary behaviour is not sinful, or it is sinful but not serious.

In the light of Lamentations, I can’t help fearing for the future…

Less than a man, less than a Jew, more than a king

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There are certain people that you just respond to.

Something about them seems to resonate with you and you can’t help but like and admire them.

That happens with characters from the Bible too.

Certain individuals, even if they are only briefly described, or have a minor role, yet something about them gets to you.

Ebed-Melech is just such a character for me.

In some ways he didn’t have much going for him.

He was a slave in the service of King Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38:6-13). His name seems to be a slave name, given to him to replace his given name, as it means “King’s servant.

He was also a eunuch, that is to say someone who had been deliberately castrated, or had his sexual organs completely removed, or who was incapable of sexual intercourse due to a birth defect. Although the first of these was the most common.

This meant that as a convert to Judaism (something that he would have had to be given his role in the service of a Jewish king) he was excluded from temple worship.

Deuteronomy 23:1-3 and Leviticus 21:18-20 specify that this exclusion was not because they were considered morally, socially or ethnically inferior but because their condition was a “blemish”, something which made them imperfect. Eunuchs could not be priests; nor could they be admitted to the Temple.

Ebed-Melech is also a Cushite, that is to say an African, probably a negro. Thus he has been sold into slavery, castrated and sent hundreds of miles from his homeland to a foreign nation, speaking a foreign language.

Poor guy! He hasn’t got much going for him. Less than a man, less than a Jew, a slave, mutilated so that he can never marry and have a family and yet this man is a hero to me.

Why?

Well in the Jeremiah text the Jews are rebellious against God and consequently have mistreated Jeremiah the prophet. He has been thrown into a well, and left to die there.

Poor Jeremiah is sunk down in the mud at the bottom of a well solely for having proclaimed God’s truth to God’s people ; a truth they didn’t want to hear.

Ebed-Melech is outraged by this.

King Zedekiah is a weak king, who fears his own nobles and countrymen. Indeed, when these powerful officials came to ask him for permission to kill Jeremiah his very words to them were,

“He is in your hands. The king can do nothing to oppose you”. (Jeremiah 38:5)

Knowing this weakness, Ebed-Melech shows remarkable cunning. He waits until the King is sitting in the city gates – the place from which the King dispensed judgement.

A place in which the King will be publically expected to do what is right and lawful.
In this place he accuses those who have attacked Jeremiah of behaving unjustly.

The King cannot do other than agree and he grants Ebed-Melech the authority and the manpower to go and redress this wrong.

Ebed-Melech also shows remarkable kindness. He is on his way to rescue Jeremiah from the well and he stops off to get some rope, but he also gets some rags.

The rags are so that Jeremiah can pad the ropes under his arms so they won’t hurt him as he is lifted from the well.

Nice touch, isn’t it?

Ebed-Melech’s courage and kindness are recognised by God. In the next chapter of Jeremiah God promises that in the coming invasion, when Jerusalem is going to be conquered, Ebed-Melech will be kept safe (Jeremiah 39:15-18).

“Because you trust in me” (Jeremiah 39:18)

I find Ebed-Melech inspirational because he symbolises the fact that a relationship with God changes the unchangeable.

An unfortunate, castrated, negro slave, many miles from home yet performs an act of spiritual leadership and personal courage which causes his name to live on over 2,500 years after his death.

Indeed, Isaiah 56 might have been written with Ebed-Melech in mind.

‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant –
to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that will endure for ever.’ (Isaiah 56:4-5)

Of course this text find its best known fulfillment in Acts 8. Where another eunuch, from a nearby country to Ebed-Melech, encounters the Apostle Philip.

The unnamed eunuch is reading Isaiah 53 where a prophecy is given about the suffering servant,

‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.’ (Isaiah 53:6-7)

The eunuch wants to know who the prophet is referring to?

Philip takes this text and speaks to him about Jesus, who has just fulfilled it in his death on the cross.

I like to think that Philip also got the eunuch to turn over the page – or more accurately, to roll down the scroll – and showed him chapter 56 and Isaiah’s prophecy about the glorious messianic future.

A future in which eunuchs and foreigners would no longer be excluded from temple worship but would take their place within it; a time when all nations would pray to God together, side by side.

Whilst they are talking they happen to pass by a river. The Ethopian eunuch then asks Philip,

‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?’ (Acts 8:36)

The answer is ‘Nothing’! Isaiah 56 makes that very clear!

So a eunuch, a mutilated negro slave, a convert to Judaism but excluded from temple worship, becomes the first convert to Christianity from Africa.

He returns to Ethiopia where his high rank as treasurer to Queen Candace enabled him to share the Christian message with the royal court.

Tradition states that he baptised Queen Candace himself and that this began a succession of Christian Ethiopian leaders.

Therefore only some 4 months after Jesus resurrection (around 34 AD) , Ethiopia becomes a country ruled by a Christian leader – the first Christian country!

All because of the ministry of a physically mutilated, negro slave.

The Old Testament, the New Testament – it’s always the same story.

God using the improbable to do the unimaginable.

Authentic Pretending

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Sometimes, in the Christian life, pretending is the only genuine thing to do.

I was reminded of this recently whilst reading C.S. Lewis’ chef d’œuvre “Mere Christianity” (Book IV, Chp.7).

Lewis expresses the outlandish nature of the opening phrase of the Lord’s Prayer;

“Our Father…”

That by speaking out those words we are actually claiming to be sons of God Himself; we are pretending to be like Christ!

Which, of course, we all know to be nonsense.

Our lives do not reflect even to a minor degree the purity, the whole-hearted obedience, the unity of purpose, that exists between the Father and the Son.

To even claim it did would be an act of outlandish conceit.

Except for the fact that God Himself tells us, commands us, to do it.

Which leads Lewis to explain that there are two kinds of pretending.

There is a false kind of pretending where a pretence is made instead of a genuine attempt – as in the person who pretends he is going to help you, instead of actually helping.

But there is also a genuine kind of pretending, where the pretence leads you to the real thing.

When you don’t feel friendly, but know you should be, so you force yourself to act in a friendly way; oftentimes genuinely friendly feelings will result.

Pretending is often a pathway to becoming.

God understands human psychology,

He knows that the words we speak over ourselves have power to change – for good and ill.

I was reminded of this coincidentally, through coming across a rather bizarre translation issue in Jeremiah chapter 36.

God has given the prophet Jeremiah a message of imminent destruction because of the people of Israel’s disobedience. He is told to get a scribe to write down these prophetic words on a scroll and to read them to the people.

When the king hears about this he is not pleased. He has the scroll brought to him and has his servant Jehudi read it in his presence.

“Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll,

the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the brazier,

until the entire scroll was burned in the fire” (Jeremiah 36:23)

The word translated “columns” (deh’leth) is a Hebrew word usually translated as “door” or “gate”.

In all probability this word is used simply because of the rectangular (door) shape of the columns.

However I can’t help seeing a deeper symbolism here – even if unintentional.

Words are often doors that open up or shut down possibilities in our lives.

In the case of Jeremiah’s prophecy – this was intended primarily by God, not as a prediction of ineluctable doom, but as a call to repentance.

It was God design that the people respond by changing their ways and avoid the suffering otherwise coming their way.

These words were a door that was meant to lead God’s people to hope and a better, brighter future.

Words are doors that open or shut down possibilities.

The rather brilliant Irish author Eoin Colfer describes himself as having been,

“Browbeaten by constant encouragement by his family” (Eoin Colfer, “The Supernaturalist”)

These positive words supported and encouraged him in the long, slow, difficult process of learning to be a writer.

His family’s kind, positive, encouraging words were an open door of possibility and hope.

Whilst this is true at the natural level of human interaction, it is also even more true at the spiritual level.

Derek Prince’s invaluable book “Blessing or Cursing – You can choose!” shows very powerfully how negative words can be spiritually powerful to crush, close down, destroy, and handicap whole lives.

Sadly, for every Eoin Colfer “browbeaten by constant encouragement” there are probably more children whose lives and dreams are destroyed by parental scorn and ridicule before they even begin –

“You’re useless, you’ll never be able to do that, you’ll always be a failure…”.

We need to choose carefully which words we speak over ourselves (and our loved ones) and to make sure these are words that are doors of hope.

We also need to believe what God says about us.

And when we can’t yet believe it, we need to pretend that we do.

Pretending is often the pathway to becoming.

The enduring power of the gorgeous lie

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As I’ve said before. The prophet Jeremiah had a hard beat.

Prophet to a rebellious, stiff-necked, people, determined in their desire to not let God cramp their style.

God called them to an ethical life of business honesty, social concern, sexual morality, religious purity – they saw this as limiting. In actual fact it would have been empowering.

So Jeremiah’s message falls on ears that were not so much deaf, as closed.

But a prophet’s a prophet right?

Some people do tend to listen to them; and politically, religiously that can be a dangerous thing.

Fortunately there were other prophets – there always are. Prophets who had a “nicer” message – God loves us, God is going to bless us, we’re doing just fine.

Whether these prophets were demonically inspired, self- deceived, or simply eager to tell Power what it wanted to hear, who knows?

So Jeremiah is just a voice in a crowd, a minority voice, a disputed voice, a ridiculed voice. But a true voice.

The other prophets had patronage, access to power, position in society, they got their books published. But their message was a lie.

Interestingly, even after Jeremiah’s prophecy of doom is fulfilled – the country attacked and defeated, the king, nobles and craftsmen hauled off to Babylon in captivity – even then Jeremiah is not accepted.

You might have thought that when a prophet message comes true he might have a certain credibility, a certain standing, a certain appreciation.

You might have thought the nay-sayers would have acknowledged their error, admitted their fault, recognised Jeremiah as a true prophet of God.

“Gee, I guess he was right after all!”

But no.

Even from Babylon – yes, that’s right – from the very place of exile that Jeremiah had prophesied they would be taken (Jeremiah 27:22), the false prophets continue to oppose Jeremiah.

Not only do they contradict his message – that they are here for 70 years, so dig in make the best of it – but they seek his harm, they try to convince the priest in Jerusalem to have him clamped in stocks and neck-irons – as a madman (Jeremiah 29:26-27).

And they say honesty is always the best policy. Not so much.

At least not in a society determined to rebel against God.

People like religious lies. They are kind of like a made-to-measure suit.

They can be made to order. They fit like a glove. They don’t constrict your movement. It almost feels like you’re not wearing clothes. Ideal.

And it’s a great business to be in.

Lies ‘R’ Us.

Comfortable living, happy clients.

Unfortunately, there is one problem with a religious lie – it doesn’t reflect reality.

And that’s a problem.

It a problem that can end up taking you to Babylon for 70 years.

And, unfortunately, Babylon’s not the worst place a religious lie can take you.

And 70 years is not the longest stay.