Turning values inside-out

A sermon for St Margaret’s Bramley, 7 April 2019

Readings: (Isaiah 43:16-21) / Philippians 3:4-14 / John 12:1-8

I want us to hear a couple of short stories this morning, as well as our two Bible readings. Let’s start with one of Aesop’s fables.

The miser and his gold

The miser put a great value on the gold, although in its hole it was of no practical use. Today’s Bible readings are also both, in different ways, about what people value.

St Paul (or Saul as he was originally called) put great value on his Jewish heritage. He was proud of the tribe he belonged to, he boasted of his theological education, his devout practice in temple worship and obeying all the religious rules.  He was even proud of persecuting the new Christian sect who didn’t do these things. He thought God valued him because of all those.

But as soon as Saul encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he saw that those things he had valued were not only of no value, but negative value – “whatever gains I had, I have come to regard as loss” – the language is that of credit and debt. Like the miser’s gold in the hole that had been replaced by a stone, they had become not treasures, but a weight around his neck.  He had not only to ignore, but get rid of, those things that were holding him back in faith.

Instead, Paul (as he was then known) valued more than anything his faith in Jesus Christ. He writes, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death”.  That verse puzzled me when I first came across it, and it still challenges me now.  To know Christ – yes, that’s what we all want to do as Christians.  To know the power of his resurrection – yes, that sounds wonderful, although it’s not something we experience day to day. But to share his sufferings and become like him in death?  That’s really challenging.

Does it mean that Jesus expects me to be persecuted and tortured to death to prove that my faith is real?  I don’t believe that every Christian is expected to suffer literally in that way, though some do in other places around the world.  Perhaps it makes more sense if we think of it in these terms of reversing values. To value our faith above worldly ideas of wealth and status will often mean losing out in financial terms, just as Jesus and his disciples lived a simple life with no settled home, and that hurts.  It will sometimes mean losing friendships, when people don’t understand us and walk away, just as Jesus was rejected by many, and that hurts.  When these things happen, we need to remind ourselves again what it is we are valuing – the cross and resurrection of Christ.

Value of course, is so often measured by the world in monetary terms, like the miser’s gold. In the Gospel story we see a great contrast between Judas and Mary in their values.  For Judas the value of the perfume was monetary.  He reckoned it at 300 denarii, which was nearly a labourer’s annual wages, let’s say at least £10,000 today. It was Mary’s life savings, in the form of a physical asset, again like the miser’s gold.  But unlike the miser who kept the gold hidden in the ground where is was of no use, Mary was willing to realise its value in a new way. At that moment, when Jesus who had raised her brother Lazarus from death to life, came to visit, money meant nothing. Like Paul, she had come to a point where she understood that her relationship with Jesus meant so much to her that everything she valued, including the jar of valuable ointment, meant nothing. Indeed it had to be sacrificed in order to allow Jesus to take his rightful place in her life.

There’s another way of considering value, besides the value that we give to money, possessions or relationships.  That is the value that other people, and God, put on us, on our own unique life. Here’s another story from a different religious tradition, that of the Sikhs.

Guru Nanak’s disciple and the precious stone.

[For non-Indian readers, 50 lakhs = 5 million Rupees; 2 Crore = 20 million Rupees]

Jesus, of course, said similar things about the value that God puts on us. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Or again, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones (that is, any of his disciples) for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Lent is a time when we are encouraged to think about what we value, and what our value is to other people and God.  Some people like to put aside something that they think is holding them back from God – like Paul laying aside his empty Jewish traditions, or Mary pouring away her costly perfume.

Others, like Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus to listen to him (as another gospel story tells us) prefer to take up or do more of something that they think will help them find God – prayer, devotional reading, or study groups.

When we do find God through Jesus, and realise our value to him as well as his value to us, often the only meaningful response is one of sacrifice.  Mary’s outpouring of the ointment was both a response to Jesus’s teaching that she had received, and a thank offering for bringing her brother back to life. Paul’s response to encountering Jesus in his life was to sacrifice his high status in Jewish circles and join the very group of believers whom he had once persecuted.

Perhaps, then, it is to the extent that we are willing to make sacrifices for Christ’s sake – sacrifices of money, or possessions, or time, or status, that we being to respond to Paul’s challenge “to share Christ’s sufferings”. But we can only be motivated to do this, when we realise that the value God places on us is far more than the value we can ever place on him.  On the cross, Jesus showed that the value he places on each one of us is greater than the value he placed on his own life.  The sacrifice we owe in return is nothing less. In the words of a well known Lent hymn:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

 

(c) Stephen Craven 2019

Experiences of God in the clouds

 sermon preached at St Margaret’s Bramley, 3 March 2019

This week, the General Synod of the Church of England took Evangelism as its main theme.  Evangelism in quite a wide sense of commending God to other people through our own experience, as well as in a narrower sense of passing on the teachings of the Church to a new generation.   One of the speakers at Synod described Christians as “Trip-Advisers for Jesus”. I presume he meant that we can rate our spiritual experiences and share them with others, just as certain websites allow you to do the same with your holidays.  For at its core, evangelism is a personal thing, and we cannot pass on to others what we ourselves have not experienced.

It’s that last word – “experienced” – that I want to dwell on today. Too many people still think that being a Christian is either all about “believing the Bible” (however you choose to interpret that), or “going to church”.  But when we actually read the Bible, most of it is about people’s experiences rather than their beliefs or religious practice.

Experiences of God can take many forms – listen again to just two verses from today’s Gospel.  “While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” (Luke 9:34-35). Hear the experiences there – “overshadowed”, “terrified”, “entered the cloud”, “listen!”  Jesus didn’t take those disciples up the mountain to preach another sermon, he wanted them to have an experience, an emotional experience, that would stay with them and change them.

Narrowing it down even further, the one word that I want to focus on from that verse is “cloud”.  It’s a word that occurs many times in the Bible. Sometimes the cloud is a literal one, sometimes more symbolic.  But always the focus is on experience.  Let’s just run through a few of these to get the idea.  I expect you will have heard of these people.

 

 Noah no doubt saw rather a lot of clouds during the forty days of rain.  But at the end of the story when he and his family were back on dry land, he saw a rainbow in the clouds. And he experienced God saying, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” For Noah, the beautiful colour of the rainbow became a way of understanding God’s faithfulness.

Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, in thick cloud and smoke, along with fire and a sound like the blast of a trumpet.  Earlier in life he had experienced the burning bush in the desert.  Out of such experiences, a confusion of sights, sounds and smells, and a terrible sense of awe, came the conviction that God was giving his people instructions for living.

Solomon experienced a cloud filling the Temple – in this case the cloud represents the presence or glory of God.  He had to cease his carefully rehearsed acts of worship and instead stand in awe as he sensed the real presence of God. Out of this and other experiences he became the wisest of people. Isaiah had a similar experience in the Temple, which brought him to a place of great humility.

Daniel, in Babylon with the Jewish people in exile, saw a vision concerning the last days, in which “One like a Son of Man came with the clouds of Heaven”.  His spirit was troubled and the vision terrified him.  But from that experience he recognised that God would give to the Son of Man dominion, honour, glory and kingship for ever.

Coming back to Peter, James and John on the mount of Transfiguration, their own experience of being lost in the cloud with Jesus and his ghostly companions also terrified them, to the extent that they told no-one about it until after the Resurrection when it all started to make sense, that Jesus was in fact a new lawgiver like Moses, a new prophet like Elijah, and also Daniel’s “son of man”.  Sometimes it’s only long after an experience that we can reflect on it and make sense of it.

I suggest that in all these experiences of the cloud, God is wanting people to be aware of what they experience (that is, by sight, sound, smell or any other sensation), and what the feel (that is, in their emotions)?  Out of that, he asks the question, “who do you say that I am?”

 

Noah may have responded to that last question with “The One whose Covenant is sure, never again to destroy mankind”.  Moses would have said “the Lord our God, who brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. Solomon – “The Lord whose glory fills the Temple”, Daniel – “The Ancient of Days”.  Jesus’ disciples were given the words by the voice from the cloud – “This is my Son, my Chosen”.

Of course, few of us will ever experience anything so dramatic as those prophets and apostles.  What might experiences of the cloud of God’s presence look like in practice for you or me?  I can’t speak for you, because the glorious truth is that everyone’s experience of God is personal and unique.  I can only speak for myself, so here are a few times in my own journey of faith when clouds have featured prominently.

The first time I flew in an aircraft, as a child, with a heart filled with wonder I looked down on the clouds.  Grey and flat from below, above they billow like cotton wool, reflecting the full light of the sun.  No human had seen this before we learnt to fly. At that time, aged ten, I would not have called myself a Christian – I just hadn’t given any thought to the question yet – but looking back on that and other times I’ve flown, I would reply to the question, Who do you say that I am, by saying “the Creator who made all things for Your glory. You delight in that which humans have not yet seen and have prepared what we cannot imagine.”

Years later as a young adult, I again found myself above the clouds, this time on a mountain top in France.  I was using that holiday to explore a sense of vocation. I had walked though the small hours of the night with a local guide to reach the top of the mountain not long after sunrise. What I saw was cloud that covered the valley below us.  As the cloud lifted in the morning sun it revealed a lake far below.  In the silence birds flew round us.  We stayed there for some time, rejoicing at the beauty of this scene.  I thanked our guide, who led us through the cloud and up the mountain. To God’s question Who do you say that I am? I replied, “the Guide who can be trusted to lead me to what I do not know, revealing your beauty along the way.”

Some years later again, when Linda and I were newly engaged, we stood together one evening by the kitchen sink, looking out as clouds gathered at dusk, glowing ever deeper with blazing red.  Never had we seen such a sunset.  We stood in awe of our Creator and in love with each other. Our answer to the question then was, “You are the God of power and passion.  You brought us together and we will trust you in our relationship.”  Like Noah, this sign in the heavens became a personal sign of God’s love.

Of course, not all emotions are happy ones, not all experiences are pleasant, and life has its ups and downs.  Going back a few years, I went on holiday by myself to get over the end of a previous relationship.  Walking alone across cloud-covered hills, I found the mist surrounding me to be a consolation at a time when I felt depressed. God’s presence in solitude embraced me, and to the question “Who do you say that I am?” I could reply “the constant lover, the One who never turns away but always understands.”

Those, then, are some examples of how God’s presence can be felt, experienced, enjoyed (or not).  This imagery of clouds is just one that happened to resonate with today’s readings. There are many other kinds of experience. What I would encourage you to do is ponder how your own experiences, everyday or out of the ordinary, of the world around you, can speak to you of God’s presence.

We are not disembodied minds, we have God-given bodies that sense the world around through touch, taste, smells, sights and sounds, sense our own minds through our emotions, and sense also God’s spirit within us. The truth is that it is only in experiencing God with and through our physical senses and emotions, that we can come close to saying that we know him.

Coming back from the sublime to – I daren’t say the ridiculous, but the mundane, with the General Synod and its discussions on evangelism.  It is when we are able to make sense of our experiences and share our insights with other people, that we are able to engage in the sort of evangelism that the Archbishop of Canterbury was talking about this week when he said this –

“When we talk of evangelism and discipleship, we are talking about a radically, differently shaped Church, which starts with being filled afresh with the Spirit of God, consumed with the love of God for us, for the world, and obsessed by the vision of God for the world, which we seek to change to show the shape of his love.”

So hang on to those moments when the world around you was suddenly lit up with the flame of God’s presence, when the place you were worshipping became for a moment filled with the glory of God, or conversely when the quietness of a misty day or a silent place touched you with his gentleness.  Sharing those experiences with other people may be the best form of evangelism you can offer.

Copyright (c) Stephen Craven 2019

Biblical references

Noah: Genesis 8:1-9:17

Moses: Exodus 19:9-25

Solomon: 1 Kings 8:9-13

Daniel: Daniel 7:1-13

Jesus and the disciples: Mark 9:2-9 / Luke 9:28-36

 

Looking outside the frame – a Christmas message

Looking outside the frame

Sermon preached at Bramley St Margaret, 23 December 2018

(c) Stephen Craven 2018

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6 / Luke 21:29-36

A few weeks ago I was sat on the bus, going into Leeds, when a young woman, possibly an art student, came and sat next to me.  She was carrying an empty picture frame – a large one, perhaps a metre high – and apologised as she slid it in front of our seats.  I asked what she was framing; she said, disappointedly, that large as it was, this frame was not large enough.  The picture she had was even bigger and would have to be cut down to fit the frame.  Bear that image in mind.

For the last three weeks of Advent we have been following Mary and the Holy Family through their amazing journey.  An emotional journey that started with an angel announcing her pregnancy, and moved on to the support she received from her aunt Elizabeth and from her fiancé Joseph.  We considered Mary’s bravery in accepting the challenge with all its risks, and the call to make a long journey right at the end of the pregnancy.

Now we arrive with Mary at Bethlehem.  Mary, we assume, is out of her depth.  Just when a young woman needs her own mother to support her through the birth of her first child, she finds herself several days’ journey from home with only faithful Joseph for company – but he’s presumably not been a parent before, either.  It’s a new experience, in a new town, with no facilities.  Scared or what?  What might be going through her mind, before the contractions start and they “call the midwife”?

Think back to that picture frame.  Let it represent Mary’s world view.  At this unprecedented moment, Mary needs to look outside the frame of her immediate challenges.  Of course as a good Jew she knows her Bible.  She can recite Psalm 139 – “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” That applies to us all, the Jewish world view framed the idea that every child is unique and known to God.  But Mary knows more. She had the personal encounter with the Archangel Gabriel and the promise that Jesus would be called the Son of God.

It’s not only paintings that are put in frames.  Spectacles are, too. I got these new glasses recently.  When the optician invited me to choose a frame, I went for a bigger one than before.  When I’m cycling, head down, I need to be able to see through the lens like this, not over the top of the glasses where I lose focus.  But they are varifocals so I can read clearly as well. Close up and long distance, to see what’s under my nose and know where I’m going.

Prophecy is like that. Mary’s knowledge of Scripture also includes the Prophets.  The Jewish scriptures are full of Prophecies, and traditionally one Sunday in Advent is given over to thinking about them.  One way we can think about prophecy is that of seeing through a bigger frame – the prophet is given an understanding beyond what people can deduce from their own reasoning, science and history.  It might be like reading glasses –  a deeper understanding of what really lies behind human words and actions – or like distance vision –  a word of knowledge of the future.

Isaiah alone uttered many prophecies about someone called the Servant of God, and we have just heard part of one of them read this morning.   Put together with the words of Gabriel, Mary realises, sat in the stable in these days before the birth, that the baby in her womb is not only her first-born, but the first-born of God.

Elizabeth’s baby John was only 6 months old at this time, yet before his birth it was prophesised that he himself would be a prophet. At his circumcision, John’s father had also prophesied over him, that “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Those words pointed not to John, but to Jesus.

Put together with the words of Isaiah, Mary realises again that her child will be not only the light of Israel, but the light of the World.  That’s a much bigger frame for her picture of the world!

Let’s leave Mary in the stable for a few minutes, and think ahead a bit.  Unlike us, Mary does not know at this point that the Magi are already on their way from the East, bringing symbols of kingship, priesthood and suffering.  They saw Jesus in a different frame altogether.  They under-stood that this baby was being revealed as the Son of God, but also saw that he would face dangers ahead.  Which brings us to the Gospel reading.

Jesus, as an adult, understood all too well what his identity meant.  He knew the intimacy of being God’s son, yet he also knew that in fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah, he was the Suffering Servant, destined to die. He knew also that his death and resurrection would bring about enormous upheaval.   So among all the good news of forgiveness and healing, Jesus also prophesied.  His prophecies warned of coming dangers, of the importance of looking far ahead.  He uses the simple example of leaves appearing on trees at the start of spring, a sign that summer is on its way, to remind people that God does give us signs of the times if we can only understand them.

“Be alert at all times”, he told his disciples. “That day” – the day when the Kingdom of God is fulfilled – “will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth”. This, and other prophecies in the Gospels, are often seen as having a double meaning: both the destruction of Jerusalem a generation later, and the second coming of Christ himself when we believe the world will be transformed in ways we cannot yet understand.  But they also had to be alert for what would happen in their own lifetimes.

For the moment, Christmas is upon us – not without warning, we knew it was coming, but so often we seem to have too little time to prepare.  The conventions of Christmas mean that our ‘frame’, or world view, can be restricted rather than expanded, and we find ourselves going along with the consumerism, family rituals and cultural expectations.    Jesus’ words about “Dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” are all too relevant, as what should be time to relax can easily end up being time to worry, and what should be time to appreciate God’s gifts can easily become a time of self-centredness.  “Being alert at all times” means being prepared for God, prepared for the unexpected.

We never know when crisis might hit us, even at Christmas.  As a boy, one festive season was ruined for me when my favourite pet cat was run over on Christmas Eve; twelve years later, my Grandma died, also on Christmas Eve.  And there are those who this year have much bigger worries than these: some will find themselves homeless, in debt or alone for the first time.  Many will remember the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004; this Christmas there has been another, in the same part of the world.  More locally, Boxing Day 2015 saw unprecedented floods in West Yorkshire.  In the light of those worries, those unexpected crises, those things that make us wonder how we can cope, what does Jesus’ call to “be alert at all times” actually mean?

Let’s remember Mary and Joseph again, sitting in the Bethlehem stable – no shepherds or kings yet, no baby, just the two of them and a few animals.  But actually it is an opportunity – assuming she didn’t go into labour the same day they arrived, they have a bit of time for reflection, to put their immediate worries into the expanded frame of thinking that the angels and prophecies have given them.  They are not alone, because God is with them – Immanu’el.  It’s not a disaster, because it’s all part of God’s plan.  There is the wider family to support them – we can be sure that Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Mary’s own parents, would have been praying for them.

So can we, perhaps, find time this Christmas season to widen our frames, to see the whole picture?  If you have a week off work, or two weeks off school, take the time between now and the New Year to look at your life and think outside the frame.  Do you have only problems, or opportunities?  A short term crisis, or the chance to alter your long term plans?  Immediate decisions to make, or time to think over the options?  What support do you have in whatever is troubling you? Are there family members and friends who can help, self-help books, special interest groups or charities to turn to for advice; support in the local Church, Bible passages to encourage you, forms of prayer that you find helpful?  Which of God’s many promises can you rely on to carry you through?

Mary could cope because she could look outside the frame – she knew that Jesus was being born, not just for her but for the world.  Mary understood the prophesies, and was ready for Jesus.  Are you?

The Apocrypha in Lent – 30 March (Good Friday)

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

30 March 2018. Daniel chapter 14

Like the story of Susannah on which I wrote earlier this week, this chapter, known as “Bel and the dragon”, is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features in the three short stories that it comprises, all of which share the theme of the defeat of idolatry.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.

In the first of the short stories, King Cyrus – mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and undoubtedly a historical person – is portrayed as worshiping the idol called Bel or Marduk which appears to eat a large amount of food (including sacrificed sheep). Daniel is no under illusion – he knows that the idol is only a bronze -covered clay statue, and tells the king that their must be trickery.  Cyrus is at least willing to investigate the truth, but the priests of Bel are confident their secret trap door (by which they go in to eat the idol’s food at night) will not be discovered. Daniel uses a simple built of forensic investigation by scattering ashes on the floor to expose the footprints of the people who come in at night, and thus persuades the king to stop worshiping the idol.

In the second story, the king is now worshiping a living creature – a “dragon” (we cannot know what sort of animal this really was). He believes it to be immortal, but Daniel very simply chokes it to death with balls of hair, grease and pitch.  In this way he persuades the king to drop the practice of idolatry.  But that is not the end of the story – for the second time (if the stories in the book are in chronological order) Daniel is fed to the lions, yet survives by God’s miraculous intervention.

Is there any relevance to this story for Christians?  Yes, very much so! Today is Good Friday, when Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate.  Pilate found himself in the same position as Cyrus did – faced with a believer in God who had been upsetting the religious systems of their day, yet willing to be persuaded that the believer in question was not only harmless to society, but maybe even right in representing a different form of religion.

Yet in both cases, the priests of the established religion – the servants of Bel, or the priests of the Jerusalem temple who professed to worship the true God, the God of Abraham (and for that matter Daniel) – were so afraid of losing their influence and their income that they threatened to riot. Just as the priests of Bel “pressed [Cyrus] so hard that the king found himself forced to hand Daniel over to them to throw Daniel into the lion pit” (14:30-31), so Pilate was pressed so hard by the Jews to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, that he did the same.

What can we learn from these stories – true or not? It seems impossible to modern people that an intelligent person such a Cyrus could believe in a statue actually being a god, but then it seems impossible for many people that an intelligent person can believe in an unseen god.  The deity of Bel and the Dragon could be disproven; the existence of God can neither be disproven, nor proved by scientific experiment.  Daniel, if these stories are true (and the Bible has many examples of people being miraculously preserved from death) could point to the evidence in his life of a saving power, and so can many people today.  Belief in God requires faith, but a faith for which there is evidence.

It is not surprising that when Jesus hung on the cross, he was taunted to save himself and come down from the cross.  He had healed people of all kinds of illness and disability, even raised people from the dead. But it appeared he could not save himself. Where was the God who rescued Daniel from the lions, Joseph from the pit in which his brothers had thrown him, or the three young men of chapter 3 from the furnace, when his own son was dying?  The miracle of Good Friday is in fact in the fact that Jesus was not saved from physical death. For he had to undergo it in order to be raised to life, without which his saving work for all of humanity would not be complete.  Daniel’s life was saved as a reward for defeating the power of idolatry and destroying the terrifying dragon, but Jesus on the cross faced down the greater enemy, the unseen power of the Devil.  He paid the price for that with his life, but was rewarded with the everlasting life that he also offers to us.

Happy Easter!

Here ends the book of Daniel, and with it my survey of the whole Bible (including the apocryphal bits) over the last 15 months.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 28 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

28 March 2018.  Daniel chapter 13

This chapter is the story of “Susannah and the elders”. It is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features as a witness.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.  It does, however, make some very important points about natural justice and the legal system.

This story was written about 2200 years ago, about the Babylonian culture of about 2500 years ago.  Bearing in mind that there was neither written language nor (as far as we know) any official system of justice in what we now call England at that time, it is remarkable that Babylon was known for having a detailed legal system.  If verse 5 is historically accurate, two elders were appointed as judges each year.   That’s no bad thing – most societies regard respected older people as suitable to act in that capacity, and a decision by two people rather than one is generally safer.  But there are other good principles that should be observed, and which failed in Susannah’s case.

Firstly, to summarise the story: the two judges both become infatuated by this beautiful, young but married woman, and plot together to sleep with her when they find her alone (i.e. commit rape).   A trial is held at which they preside, and their evidence that she had been committing adultery with another man is held to be sufficient to condemn her to death.  Daniel then comes on the scene, not having been at the trial, but knowing by a message from God that she is innocent.  He is then invited to preside at a re-trial at which he finds the men’s evidence contradictory, and they are then condemned to death instead.

How many faults can we find?  Firstly, the two elders acted as both witnesses and judges.  That should never happen even in the most informal of disciplinary hearings!  Secondly, there was no evidence given as to who the mystery adulterer might be.  Thirdly, the elders gave their evidence together. When Daniel interviewed them he heard them separately and was able to expose their evidence as false, for one said they saw the adultery being committed under a mastic tree, and the other said under a holm-oak.  Witnesses should be interrogated separately for just that reason.  And finally, Susannah was not given the chance to put her defence, until Daniel’s re-trial.  We might think that was “the way things were” in a patriarchal society, but as Daniel points out, Jewish law did admit women as witnesses and provide for a defence to be made (verses 48-49).

To add to all that, although not a matter of breaking the civil law (then or now) the very lustful desire they had for her is condemned as sinful.  “They threw reason aside, making no effort to turn their eyes to heaven” (v.9). It is neither surprising or sinful in itself for men of any age to find a young woman attractive, but any mature man, and certainly anyone following one of the major religions, should see there is a clear distinction between a passing look and lusting for someone so badly that he seriously contemplates raping her.

The story of Susannah, then, apart from the spiritual element of Daniel’s word of knowledge by the Holy Spirit, tells us more about principles of justice, law and what we would now call safeguarding, than about religion.  But then, religion is about real life.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 27 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

27 March 2018. Daniel chapters 9-12

Chapters 10 and 11 are titled “A time of wrath” and describe the vision Daniel is said to have had concerning a coming time of war and persecution.   Unlike some of the earlier visions there are no fantastic creatures here like the multi-horned beasts of chapters 7 and 8.  Instead we have all-too-human rulers, men of power and greed.  They are not named, though some of them are titled “King of the North” or “King of the South”.

The Jerusalem Bible’s footnotes identify many of these kings by name and dates of their reigns: the kings of the North are Alexander and his followers in Syria, and those of the South the Ptolemies of Egypt.  This does make historical sense of the story, which covers a period from 306 to 165BC, a period of 140 years or about five generations.  But given that the book was written in the 2nd century BC and Daniel was supposed to have prophesied in about the 6th century about events that took place in the 3rd, one does wonder how much was written with the knowledge of what had already happened, even if Daniel did have a prophecy that was passed own orally through this time.

The purpose of the revelation to Daniel, though, like the purpose of the revelation to St John in the first or early second century AD (i.e. the Apocalypse), was to encourage God’s people at a time of persecution by showing that there were powerful angels and archangels at work striving on behalf of goodness and justice, even when it seemed that evil had swept them away.

For the ordinary believer caught up in political and military upheaval it must often seem as if God has abandoned them to the forces of evil. But the presence of the Archangel Michael, whose name is translated as “Who is like GOD?” (10:13), serves to confirm that Daniel, and anyone else who continues faithful to God through times of trouble, has the power of God on their side.  Throughout the times of trouble there is the promise that there will be a restoration of justice and righteousness under a future saviour, and even resurrection of the dead (12:2). These are the promises that kept the Jewish people hopeful until the arrival of Jesus Christ, their true saviour.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 26 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

26 March. Daniel chapter 6

Not a new thought today – I am re-posting with a few amendments what I wrote on 30 August last year, as it is relevant to Holy Week.

A pattern, perhaps not obvious at first, is seen in the story of the lions’ den when compared with the events of Holy Week (the last days of Jesus’ life).  Daniel. like Jesus, is charged falsely by his enemies; the ruler (Darius in Daniel’s time, Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ day) tries to get out of what the law demands, knowing that the man before him is actually innocent of any crime; the crowd prevails (as it did when calling for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus) and the innocent man is reluctantly condemned to death.  Unlike Jesus, Daniel did not actually die, the lions miraculously sparing him.  But just as Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb and sealed with a stone, so Daniel is cast into a pit and a sealed stone put over it; at dawn the king, like Mary Magdalene and her friends, comes fearing the worst, but like them hears the voice of the one they thought was dead.

The outcome of both stories is much the same: King Darius is persuaded of the truth of the Jewish faith, and the Apostles come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

This story was written probably about 150 years before Jesus, yet it seems to be as much a prophecy or foreshadowing of what would happen to the Messiah, as it is a coded history of the various tyrants who had persecuted the Jews up to the time of the Macabbeans (which is how a historian would read the book of Daniel).  For that reason, as well as his God-given ability to interpret dreams, Daniel is regarded as one of the prophets.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 25 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

25 March. Daniel 3:24-90

For the rest of chapters 1-4 see my blog posts for 28 August and 29 August 2017.

These interpolations to the text of Daniel chapter 3 are titled “The song of Azariah” and “The song of the Three Young Men”.  They are put in the mouths of the Jews who, condemned for their refusal to worship the statue of gold set up by Nebuchadnezzar, were thrown into the furnace but protected from harm by an angel.  Whether this is a true miracle, or total fiction, or somewhere between, the value of these passages lies in the way that people in great danger turn to God, not in anger but in praise.  Azariah’s song acknowledges that God has rightly punished the Jewish people for turning away from him, and calls on him to have mercy on those who do still believe and trust in him.

The song of the Three Young Men (Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael, or to give them their Babylonian names Abednego, Shadrach and Meshach) is one of pure praise. It resembles the Psalms, in particular those with a congregational refrain (“Bless the Lord! Give glory and eternal praise to him!”).  Only at the end do the three men thank God for rescuing them from death, as if that is less important than praising him for his whole creation. This idea that God can and should be praised, even in the most testing of times, is another theme found throughout the Bible.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 24 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

24 March. Baruch chapters 4-6

Chapters 4 and 5 are a prophesy during the exile to Babylon, in which Jerusalem is personified as a woman who has been widowed and her children taken away; she is urged to be patient until they come back.  Although Baruch is associated with his contemporary Jeremiah, some of the words of chapter 5, with talk of levelled hills and filled valleys, are reminiscent of the earlier prophet Isaiah. This lesson, of being patient in times of trouble and trusting in God to restore better times at the right season, is one that recurs many times in Scripture, and especially in the Prophets.  God is never seen as condemning anyone to continual punishment in this life (though the fate of the unrepentant sinner after death is a different matter); turning to God in trust may not result in an instant improvement in our fortunes, but demands patience and hope for the future.

Chapter 6, by contrast, is a letter written earlier, before the exile, by the prophet Jeremiah. It warns in vivid terms of the dangers of idolatry, and especially mocks those who worship wooden idols.  However rich their gold leaf, silver ornaments and purple clothing, they have no power, no personality.  Jeremiah was obviously concerned that the God-worshipping people of Israel and Judah would be led astray by living in Babylonia where such idols were worshipped.

It is a strong person who, throughout their life, can resist the example and invitation of others to do what they know to be wrong.  Why is it wrong, though, rather than merely harmless? For if idols have no reality, what real harm can be said to be done by joining in worshipping them?  The point is that one cannot worship both the true God and idols – the heart can only point in one direction, ad it is important to get it right.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 23 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

23 March. Baruch chapters 1-3

These first chapters of the book are a combination of three Biblical genres – history, lament and wisdom.  The introduction sets it firmly in historical context – Baruch wrote it in exile in Babylonia as a text to be read first to those who were in exile with him, then to be sent back to Jerusalem to be read and acted on by those who remained.  It was sent along with money to pay for sacrifices and other expenses of the Temple.  Reading the other books of this period one can get the impression that no Jews remained alive in Judah, that the Temple was totally destroyed and worship ceased.  But from this book we get a different impression – a remnant remained in Jerusalem and was trying to keep the faith going there, just as the exiles were trying to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”.  By having them both read the same texts, Baruch was trying perhaps to foster a sense of unity between them.  Different places, different trying circumstances, but the same people of God.  As one verse of a well-known Christian hymn puts it,

Through many a day of darkness,
Through many a scene of strife,
The faithful few fought bravely,
To guard the nation’s life,
Their Gospel of redemption,
Sin pardoned, man restored,
Was all in this enfolded,
“One Church, one Faith, one Lord.” (Edward Plumptre, 1889)

The second element is lament – the people’s confession and contrition for their sins, acknowledging God’s right to punish them for turning away from him.  This sits very uneasily in today’s culture of rights, entitlements and personal freedom.  While nearly everybody (I hope) realises when they have physically or emotionally hurt someone else and will be willing to apologise for it, it is common for people to take the attitude “what I choose to do  is no-one else’s business, and if I offend them, that’s their problem”.  And if that is the attitude towards fellow humans, the idea of offending God, let alone the idea that God has the right to punish us, is even more alien to this post-modern world.

Sometimes it takes a real crisis – personal or corporate – to make people come to their senses and understand that right and wrong, sin and punishment, confession and forgiveness, operate not only between individuals but across communities and ultimately the whole world.    Perhaps the nearest a secular mindset comes to understanding this is with ecological damage and climate change, where we are gradually accepting that the pollution or waste I cause today will, indirectly but surely, have a negative impact on the lives of people I will never meet.  And the scale of confession and repentance (i.e. changing attitudes and actions) that is required is no less than that which faced the Jews in exile, or left behind in Jerusalem.

The good news is that lament is followed by praise to God for his wisdom (Chapter 3), by which we can do things right.    Only by doing things God’s way, and recognising our mutual dependence on each other, can we find the way of wisdom, the way of forgiveness, the way of sustainable living.