Bible · faith

Resurrection Is The Last Word

I love it when things come together. To see God’s hand in even the smallest event.
For me, this has come in the last few days in my readings in the book of the Prophet Jeremiah.

We have just had two weeks that have been very rich with family time, but also full of travelling and busyness when there hasn’t been much time for quiet.

Now, as I write this, it’s Holy Saturday, that space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday when we remember Jesus in the tomb, and I’m hoping to capture some of the meaning of this season – moving from Lent into Easter.
I’ve been reading the book of Jeremiah since the beginning of the year, and now I’m up to chapter 30. In the last few days of my readings, there’s been a shift. From dire warnings of judgment for Israel for forsaking their God, a note of hope is creeping in.

That’s not to say that the judgment will not come.
It will.
Israel will still be sent into exile in Babylon.
Jerusalem will still be laid waste.

But God has a long term plan that involves restoration. In fact the time that Israel spends in exile will result in purification and a renewal of their faith. Read what God says to Israel in chapter 30:

Thus says the Lord:
I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob, and have compassion on his dwellings; the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound, and the citadel set on its rightful site …… and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

It feels so right to be reading this on the cusp of Easter Day.
Walter Brueggemann writes about this chapter of Jeremiah:
“This chapter speaks of a hope rooted in God’s own resolve and faithfulness; a hope addressed toward a people who are at the brink of despair. A hope issued in the face of their captivity in Babylon. A hope that would overcome even the utter failures of the past.”
Exile and Homecoming – A Commentary on the book of Jeremiah. page 270 (slightly amended)

The fix that we are in is essentially the same as Israel’s. We need hope in our places of despair, our sicknesses, our addictions, our slavery ….
We are tempted to respond with either blind optimism, or bleak despair. The message of Jeremiah is that there is a third way. The following verses from Jeremiah 24 tell us that hope is to be found because this renewal is a work of God, and not a human endeavour.
I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God,”
God promises that there will be a time when he will give them a new heart. God knows that on their own, Israel’s heart will not change. If they are to change, then it must be a work of God.

Jeremiah uses the image of sickness unto death in chapter 30:
For thus says the Lord: Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous. There is no one to uphold your cause, no medicine for your wound, no healing for you. (Jeremiah 30:12-13)

God’s people are terminally ill, beyond healing and sure to die.

But even in the face of this, God says:
“I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 30:17)

In the end, God wills resurrection. Walter Brueggemann again:
“The future … is firmly under the rule of God … On the one hand, Israel must not deny its bleak present. On the other hand, however, it must not take the present with ultimate seriousness. God’s sure governance of the future stands as a powerful, palpable alternative to present despair.” Brueggemann p. 281

I remember nearly 20 years ago hearing Rowan Williams being interviewed. He had just been announced as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. He was asked what for him was the central message of the Christian faith. His answer was that change is possible. The resurrection of Jesus is the most powerful statement that it is possible to transform even the most hopeless situation.

It seems to me that the message of the book of Jeremiah is the same. On this Holy Saturday, as we wait for Easter Dawn, we pray for all those who are waiting and praying for change, and for God to work in resurrection power.

Grace and Peace.

Bible · faith · Following Jesus · Grace · World Affairs

On That Day This Song

I’m preaching at our Thursday Communion Tomorrow.
Here are my thoughts on Isaiah 26:1-6 and Matthew 7:21 &24-27

Isaiah 26:1-6
On that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city; he sets up victory like walls and bulwarks.
Open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.
Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace – in peace because they trust in you.
Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God you have an everlasting rock.
For he has brought low the inhabitants of the height; the lofty city he lays low.  He lays it low to the ground, casts it to the dust.
The foot tramples it, the feet of the poor, the steps of the needy.

Matthew 7:21 &24-27
21 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 
24 ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

I remember a period of time when I was preaching every week that it seemed as though every sermon had the same theme – death and resurrection. I just couldn’t escape it. And I have that same feeling as I am sharing these thoughts today. The verse that struck me in today’s readings was that first verse in the Isaiah reading – ‘On that day this song will be sung …’

Isaiah is looking with the eye of faith to a day when God will restore his people. When there will be singing and rejoicing as they return from exile to the holy city Jerusalem. That return will come after years of tension. On the one hand there has been the unfaithfulness and disobedience of Israel and on the other hand the faithfulness of God, who at times allowed them to be punished, but always within the bigger scope of his faithful love for them.  

We’re watching a prison drama on T.V. at the moment.  The governor of the prison is trying to bring in reforms, to make the prison a place of restoration rather than punishment.  However, at times, she has to act in response to inmates who break rules in ways that just can’t be ignored.  She has to take away privileges partly as a message to the prison inmates, and sometimes for their safety.

The events in Isaiah’s time seem rather like that.  There are times when God has to take away privileges because of Israel’s failure to live well – that part of the story ends in the disaster of God’s people being carried from their homeland into exile. But the underlying story is one of restoration.  The hope that is always extended by God is that transformation can happen.  That a nation – Israel – that has lost its way can come back from the brink and be restored.  The whole of Isaiah is about the possibility of something new.

Our world is living through such a time of tension now.  Whereas it’s usually the poorest that suffer through drought, famine and war, the pandemic has had a much wider impact, affecting those who live in the relatively wealthy nations. Many have died, or been bereaved, or are living with long term effects of Covid; others have had their livelihoods threatened or taken from them.  All of us have experienced the removal of privileges – We have not been able to see family, to socialise, to enjoy sport and entertainment, to eat out and so on … without putting up with severe restrictions.

And as we go through these difficult times, things have been brought to the surface.  In the first lockdown, the need to tackle climate change was brought to the fore as we heard of cleaner air as there were fewer carbon emissions at that tine; the need to tackle poverty at home was apparent as we became more aware of the impact on many of losing jobs and needing food banks as well as government support to put food on the table.  The need for a new economic order is clear as we see the major threat now to a whole range of sectors – hospitality, entertainment, leisure, shopping – and it’s not clear what life will look like when we emerge from the crisis.  

So where is God in all this ? And if God is doing a new thing at this time, what might that new thing look like ? 

I suggest that we are more used to asking those kind of questions for ourselves personally than for issues that impact us globally.  In our day to day life of faith we look to God as we pray for those we know in need; we look to God for direction and help in our lives and our decision making. But we are now confronted with something new that affects us all.  

So How will we respond ?

I think the question I’m asking is this:
Is it all just down to the human race to make the best of this situation that we can ?  
Or is God involved in national and global events, as well in our own personal lives ? 
In other words, is God God of the macro as well as the micro ?

In reading Isaiah, it seems abundantly clear that God is involved in both the personal and the national, and if anything Isaiah even more concerned with the way that God addresses and deals with the community of Israel than he is with the individual.  In an individualistic society like ours we may find that hard to take, but there it is.

So back to where I started, with death and resurrection.  It’s the heart of Christian faith and also the faith of Israel as they go through the death of exile and the resurrection of return. We are going through it just now … and yes, we need resources to do that, but we will also need to look for resurrection, and the new thing that God will do.
God’s resurrection promise to Israel in Isaiah’s time is a coming together of God’s steadfast love and a renewed people – see in verse 2 “Open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.”

The two go together – God’s steadfast love and faithfulness and a response of godly living.  That’s why, at the end of the sermon on the mount, which started with God’s grace – ‘Blessed are those who know their need of God, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” … we hear Jesus challenging us to respond to that grace – to be those who not only hear the words of Jesus, but act on them.

So in the midst of a pandemic, what does that look like ?  
It doesn’t mean thinking we can save the world – that it is our responsibility to put everything right. But it does mean cultivating ways of living, habits that enable us to play our part. And as we nurture these holy habits, to be looking for signs of the new thing that God will do.

I love to tell the story of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, so brilliantly told in the film ‘Sully’. In the film Ches is piloting a plane which has just taken off from La Guardia airport. The plane is hit by a flock of birds and the engines disabled. Knowing both engines are not functioning, he makes a deicision not to try and get to an airport, but to land the plane on the Hudson river, which he does, with no loss of life. 

A subsequent investigation suggests that he made the wrong decision and that he could have landed safely at La Guardia or Teterboro airports. His whole professional reputation is on the line and it’s only when they run a simulation that faithfully recreates the situation in real time that he is proved to be right. 

If he had tried to get to an airport, it would have been certain disaster. It is his years of flying that enables him – in just 35 seconds – to make the right decision, almost by instinct. Everyone called him a hero, but his reponse was “I’m not a hero, I’ve been rehearsing for this.”   It is similarly the disciplines of faithful godly living that will help the Christian ‘rehearse’ so as to make the right ethical decisions in the heat of the moment.

Developing habits of generosity, honesty, kindness, faithfulness, listening … habits that will help us build healthy relationships and sow the seeds of grace in that part of God’s mission field where he has placed us.  Hear these words of Jesus in Eugene Peterson’s translation at the end of Matthew chapter 11 

“Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”  May you know that confidence in God at work in you day by day.  Amen.


On that day …

With the eye of faith we look forward to see – 
On that day – There will be equality between black and white, and between shia and sunni.
On that day the wall between Israel and Palestine will be torn down and the children of Abraham will live in peace.
On that day people will no longer want more power and more stuff, but will be eager to share what they have.

On that day there will be no poor among us, but all will have enough to live and enough to give.
On that day weapons of violence will be transformed – bombs will be defused, and guns will be a thing of the past.
On that day the earth will begin to recover; forests that were laid bare will grow green again.  Waters that were polluted will once more be clear; 

On that day songs of joy will be sung instead of lament.
On that day families who have fallen out with each other and not spoken for years will decide to pick up the telephone.
On that day the last food bank will close; 

On that day protestants and catholics will worship side by side, and embrace each other as brothers and sisters.
On that day … on that day, those who mourn will be comforted, fear will be replaced by trust, hate will collapse in on itself
On that day the power of love will break the vicious cycles of fear and greed and hate.

On that day, on that day. Lord bring that day we pray, bring that day.

We pray – God of love and suffering power, speak again your word of transformation in the midst of our weary world. We so easlity give in to despair, to numb acceptance of the old order of things.  Kindle in us a passion for the new thing that you would do – in us, and by your grace, through us. Amen

(From Celebrating Abudance. Reflections for Advent by Walter Brueggemann)