Meek Expectations.

February 23, 2011

Dear reader, I have made a discovery! I have always thought of ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ as a very New Testament saying, but guess what? It’s in the Old Testament! Psalm 37:8-11 reads:

8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
   Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
9 For the wicked shall be cut off,
   but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
   though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
   and delight in abundant prosperity.

Who knew? Well, maybe you did, but I didn’t and I’ve enjoyed discovering it.

I’ve always found that phrase, ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ (or the land) a bit tricky. What does it mean? I mean, the meek couldn’t exactly rise up and take the earth by force because then, well, they wouldn’t be meek! In fact, Eddie Izzard puts it a lot better than me (if you don’t like swearing, sorry!):

haha… now where were we…or yes the meek shall inherit the land. You see the thing Eddie isn’t really getting is that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, loves a bit of paradox. It likes to make you go, huh? The Beatitudes are all like that, turning things on their head. The poor get a kingdom? That doesn’t sound right! And here is Psalm 37 too we’re being reminded that all is not as it seems. We’re told don’t worry about the wicked, yes they look they’re in control and triumphant but, you know what? When all’s said and done they’re not (watch our David Cameron!). And it’s the meek that will inherit the land. An unexpected outcome, no? Because God is not subject to the ways of the world. Oh no siree!

And today, for a change, all of the psalms I’ve read (36-38) speak to each other on this point. Psalm 36 begins with a criticism of ‘the wicked’ but then contrasts this with the ‘steadfast love’ of God saying “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings”. Here even those called ‘wicked’ have a chance; an unexpected outcome again. (and if you, like me, find ‘the wicked’ a difficult term then perhaps think of them who have turned from God for the time being, rather a group who you have a right to judge). Psalm 38 is an appeal to God from one who is facing his own brokeness and sin and seeing that enemies are lining up to rub his nose in it, but who turns to God even in his iniquity, trusting that he won’t be forsaken, whatever his circumstances now. So even when things look rubbish, God can still be trusted, another idea to induce a ‘huh’?

The blessing of the meek and the declaration of hope in God whatever the circumstance is a call to vision beyond our sight.

Can we really believe in a world that different? Jesus did… Oh us of little faith.

 

Photo from flickr.

A grudgeless God.

February 15, 2011

Dear reader, today I read Genesis 48-50. I guess, on finishing this rather long book I should feel a sense of satisfaction, perhaps even closure. But instead I feel a bit…hmm… Yes, like that.

This is because, dear reader, I just don’t know what write about. There is some nice heart-warming family time between Jacob and Joseph in chapter 48, Jacob’s ‘blessings’ on all this sons (most of which read more like admonitions!) in chapter 49 and then a sort of ‘wrapping in all up’ bit in chapter 50. I enjoyed reading but nothing jumped out at me.

So, what to do when you don’t what to write? Read!

I read commentaries and sermons on this passage and I found out something very interesting. In 50:15, following Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers say ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ A justified fear, seeing as they left him in a pit to die and have been living from his provision since their reunion.

But the ‘what if’ that we read in English translations is not ‘what if’ at all in the Hebrew; it is the word lu. In all other translations in scripture lu  becomes ‘if only’ or ‘would that’. But here it can’t be that can it? Then the translation would be ‘if only Joseph still bears a grudge against us…’ Why would the brothers desire Joseph’s wrath?

Well, two reflections (well worth a read; here and here) that I read suggested that in some way the brothers may well have wanted this. They desired to be punished and so have their guilt assuaged. Joseph offers them forgiveness, but this is a difficult thing to accept. 

I really recognise this symptom of guilt, don’t you? This feeling that we deserve retribution, that somehow it would be easier to take that than to fully accept we are forgiven. How hard it is to really accept forgiveness? To see that the past is forgotten, redeemed, washed clean.

This Sunday morning I was standing in church waiting to take communion and I was thinking about what that sacrament meant to me. They sermon had been on Matthew 5:21-26, all about being reconciled with one another before we approach God. And I had been thinking about a certain relationship in which I struggle with feelings on anger.

As the bread and wine came around it struck me that communion didn’t fix me, but it reminded me that I was forgiven. Jesus came so that we might be free from sin; and that freedom only comes if we are forgiven by God. And we can only fully live our freedom if we are aware of God’s forgiveness.

A difficult thing to really accept at the core of our beings; isn’t it? But it is a truth. And for a fleeting moment on Sunday morning I felt it, I felt the freedom of knowing that was nothing hanging over me, no list compiled to be read out at the end of time. There were no grudges being held in heaven.

Aaaah, what a relief!

The answer.

February 10, 2011

Dear reader, a short but efficient post today, 2 for the price of 1 no less!

Yesterday I read Job 23-24. Basically, Job has a good old rant at God, whom he feels deserted by and at the world’s injustices. It’s a very good rant, the kind of rant where you find yourself thinking, ‘yeh!’ as you read. Oh yes, I can really get on board with Job’s outrage and indignation. The fact that there are people making clothes for the West who can’t afford clothes for their children, or picking crops who can barely feed their families seems very close to Job’s complaints in 24:10-12.

Funnily enough, I didn’t consider writing a post that just said ‘yeh!’ Maybe I should have. I was tired and not feeling so well so I thought I’d wait until today, read Isaiah 61-66 and try to write about them both. Afterall, last week’s posts on these books fed into each other quite well.

Well, dear reader, I get the feeling that if I wasn’t still feeling slightly off-key (and also cooking a meal for 15 students) tonight, I may very well be able to come up with a creative and insightful posts synthesising these two passages. As it is I’m struggling.

But there is a grain, a little seed of something that I’ll share with you.

The passage in Job questions why there is oppression, why there is hunger and deprivation and why those who oppress and steal seem to be rewarded in their earthly lives. The passage in Isaiah begins with these famous words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

These words speak of a God who won’t stand for the very injustices that Job rants against. And these are the words that are read by Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth at the very beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:16-21). When he had read these words he said “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

So, perhaps, there are no answers to Job’s rants, no adequate ones any way. None that tie everything up and sort anything out.

Except Jesus.

Not that Jesus sorted out the world, so that there’s no oppression or hunger, if only that were true. But that he has come to set us free from this world. He has died and rose again so that all, no matter what their earthly state, might live fully and eternally.

This seems so simple that I find myself wanting to qualify it with lots of disclaimers like “this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for a better world” and “I’m not suggesting that we should say to people who are deep in suffering “cheer up, Jesus died for you!””.

But I’ll try to ignore those impulses leave it at this: Jesus came. And just as Job knew, somehow, mysteriously, in the depths of darkness, that his redeemer lived, just as he trusted in a final, unending justice (23:10), so can we in Christ Jesus. In him there is freedom.

Amen.

Pursuing Peace…

February 8, 2011

Leader: Go in peace, to love and to serve;

All: We will seek  peace and pursue it.

 

Dear reader, I must confess, I don’t pray every morning. Not formally at least. My mind almost always moves towards God, always greets Him, but I don’t always make time to sit down with Him.

But this morning I did sit down, and I decided to use the morning service from the Iona Community to structure my prayer. I don’t do this often, but when I do there is a richness that comes. The response above is taken from the ending of the service, and this morning these were the words that stayed with me. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that by some graceful synchronicity these words are taken from Psalm 34 (part of today’s Bible dose):

11 Come, O children, listen to me;
   I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12 Which of you desires life,
   and covets many days to enjoy good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil,
   and your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Depart from evil, and do good;
   seek peace, and pursue it.

Seek peace, and pursue it. Pursue it. I don’t know about you but pursuing is not a verb I associate with peace. In my mind it seems almost predatory. Thinking about this made me realise that I have been thinking of peace as rather a passive thing. A gentle thing. A quiet thing. But can peace also be dynamic, can it be loud and lyrical? Maybe.

I really like this quotation from Baruch Spinoza, a 17th Century Dutch Jewish theologian;

Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.

How interesting. Peace, then, isn’t something that simply arises when conflict stops (I found a great blog post on this subject) but it us a quality, a state to be cultivated and sought after. To be pursued.

But what does that look like?

Well, it must, on one level, mean us as a community speaking truth to power, as the prophets did before us. It must mean crying out against injustice and violence. It must mean speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves.

But it’s not just about breaking down, it’s about building up. It must be about the creation of something new, and this creation surely starts closer to home.

In my church every Sunday morning, as in many churches across the world, the middle of our service is punctuated by ‘the peace’. We stand up and offer each other our hands saying “peace be with you”. Some people even look me in the eye as they say it (in England too, this is quite a rarity). It’s a wonderful moment and I’ve never really thought about it until now, but it really forms the centre of our service; the bridge between the unfolding of the Word and sharing of communion. In the middle of our worship we stop to wish each other peace. Do we know what we’re wishing for?

This act is an important one, its power is not to be dismissed. But I wonder in what others ways we pursue peace as a community? Is it really on our radar?

And there is a peace even closer than this. Closer than the community and even the most intimate relationship. It is the peace within. In John 14:27 Jesus tells his disciples at the last supper “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” We are given peace by God himself; how many of us receive it?

We don’t live in a world of peace, not on any level. I learnt this weekend (at the SCM Still Small Voice conference) that globally there have been less than 30 minutes of peace since the outbreak of World War Two. 30 minutes.

On a community level our egos and our precious ideas make it hard for us to really hear each other, however hard we try. And individually which one of us does not wish for a quieter mind? That we could switch of the voices of criticism that sometimes swarm around us?

It occurred to me today that without peace, there can be not freedom. It seems to me that this works on all levels; material, communal, emotional, spiritual. Without a clarity, a strength of stillness, how can we be free? While there is still violence, internal or external, how can we be free?

Peace is not easy. That’s why it must be pursued. But perhaps not to pursue it is, ultimately, harder work.

Today I read Psalms 33-35.

 

Thanks for AuntieP on flickr for the beautiful photo.

My plan for today’s post was to do a little experiment called ‘questions for God’. The idea being that I would read Job 21-22 and write down any tough questions it brought up for me. Questions I’d like to ask God, funnily enough. Sometimes I find that I avoid these questions when writing this blog, or refer to them briefly, partly because I can’t answer them and partly because they scare me. I thought this would be a good way to face them head on.

The problem is, Job’s done it for me. Chapter 21 is his tirade of questions directed at his mocking and, in his opinion, deluded friends. But early on he asks “as for me, is my complaint addressed to mortals?”; these are really questions for God (21:4). And they’re good ones too. “Why do the wicked live on,  reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” This pretty much sums up Job’s detailed inventory of the prosperity of the wicked in 21:7-16. Next he moves on to refuting the naive claims of his friends, starting with these questions that ring with irony:

17 ‘How often is the lamp of the wicked put out?
   How often does calamity come upon them?
   How often does God distribute pains in his anger?
18 How often are they like straw before the wind,
   and like chaff that the storm carries away?

He is referring back directly to claims his friends have made (eg 15:20, 18:6, 18:12) and you can just hear his tone: ”Really? That’s what you think happens to the wicked is it? Hellooo!’ My favourite part is when he says “You say, “God stores up their iniquity for their children.”   Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.” Too right! I’ve always thought the whole generational guilt thing was a bit unfair!

So, Job gets that off his chest, and his friends see his point, right? Of course they don’t. Eliphaz’s reply is sooo frustrating! First of all he lists loads of things that Job has done wrong, which is confusing because he’s supposed to be “blameless and upright” (1:1) so you get the feeling Eliphaz is clutching at straws somewhat. Then he says “Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you.” Oh, cheers, Eliphaz, I’m sure the blameless and upright Job hadn’t thought of that one! The point is that he’s still clinging to the idea that Job is suffering because he’s in the wrong, but we know it’s not like that, don’t we?

If we thought along the lines of Eliphaz then we would think that all rich and prosperous people were good and everyone who suffered disasters and loss was in the wrong. This is the kind of logic that led to some of the repugnant thinking about the Haitian earthquake from certain people who I hesitate to call Christian. It’s also the kind of thinking that can lead to a sort of self-satisfied malaise in those who have it good; something that Jesus wasn’t too keen on.

But knowing that life just isn’t that simple just makes everything more confusing, doesn’t it? I find myself reading Job’s words and thinking “yeah! yeah, exactly!” And, like Job, I want answers. The thing is, none will satisfy, even if they were a bit more complex than “bad things happen because you’re bad!”

These are questions for God and, as such, there is no real answer in our vocabulary. Except trust, I suppose, to trust in the bigger picture. But then I think tell that so someone who just lost their home to a flood, or their child to a bomb, or their arm to a diamond mine. This is tough stuff and it’s one of the fundamental questions of faith. What it all boils down to is, why doesn’t God just sort everything out?

You know, I sort believe He does sort everything out or that he is sorting everything out. That doesn’t stop me having a thousand more questions for Him though.  Because faith isn’t mindless, it’s just not mind-limited. One big point is that we should never impose our trust on someone who’s suffering. Telling someone who’s just been diagnosed with cancer that it’s all part of the bigger picture is not always the best route to go down. If we can learn anything from Job it is that just being there with a friend and allowing them to feel all their anger and pain is probably the most useful thing we can do. We’re allowed to not know why things happen the way they do, in fact that not knowing might help us to empathise with others. Job’s friends have all the answers, and they’re not so helpful…

To be comfortable with an unanswered question in this age-of-reason culture is pretty radical. And I like being radical.

I ended an old post on this subject with the phrase “may all of your prayers and none of questions be answered”. I think I might make it my catchphrase!

A nice piece of synchronicity means that in Isaiah 50-55, like yesterday’s reading from Job, we find words used in Handel’s Messiah. Like those words from Job, it is also a passage for which many Christians see the interpretation as ‘obvious’. The song of the suffering servant (chapter 53) is used in Handel’s Messiah and by many Christians over the centuries, to reflect on the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday, and I can see why. The song ends with “yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Sounds a lot like Jesus to me. But when you read this chapter in its context, this interpretation doesn’t seem so obvious.

A traditional Jewish interpretation of this text, and now the view of many Christian scholars, is that it personifies the nation of Israel and its sufferings under occupation and exile. The voices who speak here are the kings of the powerful nations, struck by the resurgence of God’s people. This actually makes a lot of sense to me. Not only is Israel named as the servant in previous chapters (44:1, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3), but the kings are mentioned in the preceding verse 52:15;  “kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” This leads straight in to the first line of 53; “who has believed what we have heard?”

Yes, when I read 53 as a whole, rather than certain verse or half verses, and especially when I read it in its place within Isaiah, I see that it may well be about the suffering nation of Israel in exile. But so what? Does that make it less powerful? Less relevant to Christians? I don’t think so, not at all.

Isaiah 50-55 is striking in that it is awash with contrasts. The suffering servant songs of 50:4-11 and 52:13-53:12 occur between shouts of jubilation and hope. In 52:7 we read the beautiful lines

7 How beautiful upon the mountains
   are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
   who announces salvation,
   who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’

and in 55:1 there is what the NRSV entitles “an invitation to Abundant Life:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.

There is something vital for us to learn from this song of hope and suffering, or of hope that comes out of suffering. Something about patience, endurance, something about every experience forming who we are.

One reason I’m reluctant to subscribe to the Jesus-as-suffering-servant model is that I’m wary of presenting Jesus’ suffering as a substitute for our own. You know, the whole “Jesus: he suffers so you don’t have to!” slogan; it just doesn’t float my boat. Plus it’s totally not biblical; hello! John the Baptist, Paul, Stephen – there was definitely some suffering involved in following Jesus. He died that we might live, he didn’t suffer that we might live it up.

So there is something we have to face in the fate of the nation of Israel, in their rejection, exile, oppression. We have to face the idea that being called to follow God doesn’t mean an easy life, far from, it means more is demanded of you. It also requires faith when hope seems absurd.

But that’s easy for me to say. I’m not in Congo or Kashmir or Cote d’Ivoire or Queensland right now, for me it is likely that this talk of suffering will only ever be relevant on an existential level. I know nothing of war or coups or natural disaster.

So I think there is another reason we must face this image of the suffering servant. We must face it lest we become like the powerful kings who are startled when they realise that those they had thought of as below them are those who God loves. We must know that’s God’s love is for the oppressed, and we must live our lives in honour of this. If the Bible teaches us one thing it is that the rich need to watch themselves!

So may we know that in every suffering, there will later be song. And knowing this may we be a part of helping others to sing.

Amen.

I love the book of Job. Before reading chapters 19-20 I had a nagging feeling that it was all getting a bit repetitive. You know, Job cries out about his suffering and his friends tell him that God punishes sin, so he must have sinned! When I’m not really engaged it can feel like a bit of a circular argument. But reading today I see this book unfolds its insights gradually, giving glimpses of hope along the way in its exploration of the biggest questions we have.

So in chapter 19 we have Job giving one of his best ‘not fair, it’s all God’s fault!’ speeches. He’s really getting it all off his chest here: there is no justice (19:7), God breaks him down (19:10), and (my personal favourite) his breath is repusive to his wife (19:17). All in all, he’s not happy. But then in the midst of all this there is one of the most famous, moving assertions of hope given in the Bible.

He turns to his friends, with their accusations of his wickedness, and says  “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at last he will stand upon the earth. ” (19:25) Despite all of his suffering, all of anger at God, all of his questions, Job holds onto a deep conviction that he things will made right, that he will be redeemed.

This is a knowlede that is central to the Christian faith. “I know that redeemer lives” takes on a new potency in the context of the resurrection. Some even see this passage as prophetic; that Job’s hope too is in Jesus. I’m unsure about this, and mainly because it seems an unnecessary imposition on an already moving text. The idea that hope in God can be present even in times of crippling trail is big enough for me. Job’s words jump off the page, they sing themselves into being. They offer us too the option of faith, whatever our circumstances.

And it is a challenge as well. I know that my redeemer lives. Such certainty is rare in this fickle world. Job seems to ask us if we too know. Do we know that this too shall pass? That though all else dies our God lives and loves and frees us eternally?

To deeply know this; isn’t that what it’s all about?

Handel used this passage in Messiah and his music communicates the hope and peace given through this knowledge, in Christ Jesus, in a way few can:

A great set of Psalms today! 29 is pretty awesome, or at least it communicates God’s awesomeness very well. The NRSV entitles it “The Voice of God in a Great Storm.” Pretty big stuff. I shall, however, pretty much just write about the penultimate verse of Psalm 27, because it’s the one that’s going around in my head. This may be partly due to the fact that I know a Taize song that uses its words, but also because these words are gloriously hopeful.

 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
 in the land of the living. (Psalm 27:13)

Other versions replace “I believe” with “I remain confident in this” (NIV) and “I’m sure” (The Message). The Taize song I love also uses ‘sure’. I like that.

The whole of Psalm 27 oozes confidence in God’s protection, love and justice. But this verse in particular has is something of such promise of it. When I have sung the song before I have almost thought of ‘the land of the living’ to mean the afterlife, but aren;t we in the land of the living?

Today I read these Psalms in the park I live near. The sun was setting on the frozen lake, families were walking and talking together. And this verse just seemed so perfect. Yes, I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. I shall see his Grace and creativity and mercy here, now. Not in only some promised land, but in this tarnished world.

For those of you who don’t know Taize (get to know!), I wanted to share the song with you. There are a few youtube videos of it being sung in the taize commnity, but none are as joyous as the one below, which was filmed on the underground in Belgium! I see the goodness of God in this video, in the smiles and the “alleluia” shouted on this busy tube on this busy day. May you see it too, in this land of the living.

Happy new year, dear reader. And what better way to start my 2011 blogging with a nice little jaunt through the “woe to you”s and apocalyptic musings for Matthew 23-25? Hmm… this may prove tricky.

Well, it’s not all tricky. Unlike much of the gospels, reading these three chapters together actually makes a lot of sense to me. They don’t so much seem to be a collection of stories and parables joined by many a theme but generally hard to reflect on collectively, but rather as one piece; a prolonged and developing narrative.

However, it just so happens that the prolonged and developing narrative is on the stuff I really struggle with; the whole heaven and hell thing. Well, the hell thing really, the heaven thing is pretty peachy. But these are the kinds of passage that confuse me a whole lot. Is God really going to divide us up like “the sheep from the goats” (25:32) and send some into “eternal punishment” (25:46). It just doesn’t seem right. And I find the whole “God is not subject to human concepts of justice” argument slightly tenuous because a) isn’t the law “written on our hearts”? and b) the people who use that argument also often explain the cross totally in terms of human concepts of justice e.g. “sin can’t go unpunished” and “someone has to take the penalty”.

I think the part I most struggle with, perhaps slightly ironically as a committed Christian, is the idea that belief in Jesus is the only way to heaven, and everyone else if off to the place “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I think many of us struggle with the idea that, for example, George Bush has a one way ticket to paradise because he confesses his faith in Jesus but, say, Gandhi? Sorry mate, you’re heading for somewhere with a rather warmer climate. Yes, that’s a hard one to stomach, I prefer to believe, and perhaps this is a bit of a cop out, that the afterlife is God’s business and beyond human concepts altogether. That doesn’t mean I don’t want people to meet Jesus, no siree. Nor indeed that I don’t feel ‘saved’ and that my sin has somehow been covered, cleansed, washed away by my own relationship with him, I just don’t want to narrow down God’s plan and power to fit my own understanding and experience. But then I worry, is that just a very convenient way to escape a difficult truth, I mean shouldn’t I just believe what the Bible says?

But hang on one cotton picking minute! What does the Bible say? Is it really as clear-cut as it’s sometimes made up to be? Maybe not… It certainly not in Matthew 23-25.

These chapters build upon each other, with ideas about the relationship between this life and the next. 23 is what I think of as the “woe to you” chapter; the part where Jesus really sticks it to the temple authorities for not practicing what they preach and losing focus on what matters. A great example is verse 23: “For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith”, shortly followed by the killer one-liner in verse 24 “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”. That Jesus, always a joker!

Chapter 24 moves on to the apocalyptic predictions, the signs of the coming of the Son of Man, or “the really weird bits” to you and I. These readings are so strange and foreboding to the modern reader, but the apocalyptic was a genre of writing whose aim was to comfort the people. Where modern western culture may be inclined to see “the end is nigh” as a warning, ancient  (and to some extent current) Jewish culture would have seen it as a statement of hope. Plus, it seems, this section gives Jesus a chance to make sure his disciples know that once he’s gone they should not simply wait, but work and prepare for God. The parable of the unfaithful slave in 24:45-51 makes this crystal clear.

So then we have chapter 25, cram packed with parables that can be seen to be about the day of judgement, or the end of time. The parable of the ten bridesmaids, the Talents, the sheep and the goats, and the final story of the King who talks to the righteous and the accursed, from 25:34-46, which contains the famous lines “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Those who are taken into the kingdom are those who cared for the “least of these”.

So what’s missing here? On a second or third reading it occurred to me that there is no mention of faith or belief in these chapters, or if there is then what seems to matter is how that faith manifests in our lives. Controversial, perhaps. Of course, it’s different in John’s gospel and in the letters of Paul, there is certainly mention of faith there. But there is also usually emphasis on behaviour, of peace and mercy. Are we in danger, in the church, of focusing so much on faith that our actions and/or God’s call to justice and mercy, become and after thought? At least, often it’s one without the other; some churches look at personal behaviour but neglect issues of wider justice and perhaps for others the balance tips the other way.

The point is, I think, that ‘justification by faith alone’ is a powerful and profound idea, but it can be taken too far. There is nothing worse than the casual smugness of a Christian assured of their own salvation and just as sure of the damnation of others. Jesus’ descriptions of the “end of the age” (more cryptic than many would have you believe) are book-ended with a call to justice and compassion. The reason that the “scribes and pharisees” are criticised is partly because of faith, but also because of action and inaction.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know of church that preaches “if you believe in Jesus you can do what you like”, nor do I want a church that says “if you’re not perfect you won’t go to heaven”. But I do know of churches in which action comes after faith. In a way I see this; that we need God’s support and blessing on our doings and, of course, that Jesus’ comes first. But does this have to make belief more important? Can they not both be integral to our faith and to our salvation? If we declare Jesus as a our Lord and saviour but have no care in our hearts for ‘the least of these’, can we truly call ourselves Christians, is that Christ-like? No, I don’t think so.

In the amplified translation of the Bible the term “believe in” is extrapolated in two ways. In Matthew’s gospel it is “believe in and acknowledge and cleave to Him” and in Mark’s (16:16) “who adheres to and trusts in and relies on the Gospel and Him Whom it sets forth”. And various combinations of these words throughout the gospels. The words ‘cleave to’ and ‘adhere to’ are key for me here. They suggest that our belief can be more holistic, and can be based in the way we live as well as how we think. This chimes in with Jesus’ words in Matthew 23-25.

So, to believe can be more than to say and think, it can be to do, to live, in a way that clings to Christ and that relies upon God. A life lived in that way is assured for entrance into the kingdom or, as it is put in the parable of the talents (24:21), to “enter into the joy of your master”. I am not sure what this means, I am even less sure what the opposite means. But I trust that Divine justice is so much more than we could ever hope for. It also gives me enough of a kick to realise that this all applies to me too. There is a great Kirk Franklin song with a lyric that asks “tell me how can I love Jesus, when I’ve never seen his face, yet I see you dying and I turn and walk away?”

I hope in 2011 I can live my belief more fully. I hope and pray that for you too. And I hope you’ve enjoyed/endured this rather bumper addition of the blog; I’ve never written a post this long before, but don’t worry, I don’t it’s a sign of things to come!

I’ll leave you again with the inspiring and challenging words of Jesus:

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “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.”

Some days reading 6 chapters of Isaiah seems like a verbose and unintelligible mountain. Some days it seems like feast of poetry that you can really get stuck into! Today it is, blessedly, the latter. This probably has something to with the fact that I’ve done very little else all day and so don’t feel squeezed for time as I would on a normal Tuesday. Don’t you just love that hibernation-like time between Christmas and New Year? (if you have been working today, apologies for the smugness!).

Chapters 44-49 of Isaiah pick of the major themes of the book; God as judge but also redeemer, and God as the God. There is an eloquent piece of prose poetry in Isaiah 44:9-20 about the fashioning of idols out of material things. It’s quite beautifully written I think, and really gets to the heart of the futility of trying to make Gods out of the material world (which, of course, God has created). Indeed, the futility of idol worship is a recurring theme in these chapters. As is the assertion that there are no gods apart from the Holy One of Israel. 45:48 ends “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” 46:9 repeats this phrase and adds “I am God, there is no one like me.” 48:12b states “I am He; I am the first, and I am the last.” And again and again we are told of God’s power in creation and salvation.

So what’s new? The assertion that there is no god but God is pretty much stating the obvious to monotheistic ears, isn’t it? This is a given for those who follow the Abrahamic faiths and many more besides. But do we really think about what it means?

Most of us have heard sermons about making idols out of material things. Sure, we don’t fashion statues of gold or silver or cedar, but the way we celebrate Christmas more than hints at the importance of stuff in our lives. Perhaps we do lose focus sometimes, most times?

There is something deeply profound and endlessly repeatable about the statement that God is the god. I really think that if any of us knew that, really knew it, it would transform us entirely. We would be able to surrender in ways we only dream of (and are probably quite afraid of) now.

God is God. God is God. Leaving the descriptions aside, it is enough simply to reflect that He is God and there is no other. Nothing that is supreme, nothing that we can trust like that and, perhaps most wonderfully of all, nothing that we should fear. Because God is God, and there is no other.

I encourage you to sit with that idea for a while, perhaps in your quiet time if you have such a thing. Do you know it? Really know it? What difference would it/does it make to know this profound truth? How could it transform you and your life? Please share your discoveries here if you feel you can. And perhaps I’ll add a comment of two to this post when I’ve sat with it too.

What would happen if we all just let God be God in our lives? I don’t know, but I have a feeling it would pretty amazing.