Joseph in Egypt – resonances of redemption

Text of a sermon preached at St John the Baptist, Adel, Leeds.

Text: Genesis chapter 42

The book of Genesis offers us many well known stories that have passed into Christian and even secular consciousness. The longest sequence of these concerns Jacob and his twelve sons, a dynastic saga that sets the scene for the later Exodus.  The passage that we heard read tonight is only a part of that sequence, towards the end of it in fact. You may well know the whole story, but in case it’s unfamiliar I will summarise it as follows:

Jacob, grandson of Abraham, had twelve sons, by his two wives and two servant girls.  Joseph was the second-youngest, and Benjamin, born several years later, the youngest.  These two were the only sons of Rachel, the other ten were their half-brothers, and that explains a lot that happens later in the story.  As young men, the older brothers hated them because they were Jacob’s favourites, and even more so when Joseph told them of dreams that they would one day bow down to him.  So they sold him to slave traders, who in turn sold him to an Egyptian official.  Thrown into prison in Egypt, he escaped only when a former fellow inmate told the Pharaoh that Joseph had the gift of interpreting dreams.  As a result of which, Joseph became finance and logistics minister, storing up surplus grain for the seven-year famine he had predicted. A famine that afflicted neighbouring countries including Canaan where his family lived.  That’s the story so far.

So, in this episode, by which time Joseph was very well off, the older brothers come to see him to buy corn from the Egyptian stores. The whole story is rich in resonances, not only for our own time, but also for the wider message of the Gospel.  Let’s look at a couple of them.

The first image that came to my mind when I pondered it is the many movements of people around the world today displaced by war, disease, famine or flood, such as the so-called caravan of migrants into the USA, or the asylum seekers crossing the North Sea in small boats.  I don’t imagine for a moment that Jacob’s was the only family that went down to Egypt to seek food or work in the drought, there must have been thousands.  Joseph presumably had to receive all of them to assess their needs.  Far from being hostile to these refugees from natural disaster, he – and his Egyptian masters – were willing to help them.  At the end of the story, Jacob’s extended family is invited to settle permanently in Egypt.

What a contrast that is to the attitudes of suspicion we so often see around us.  There is good work being done in Leeds by a network of churches and voluntary organisations to support homeless people, asylum seekers and refugees.  Jesus would approve – he proclaimed his mission as being to seek and save the lost, he spoke to despised groups of people, he told the story of the good Samaritan (as unlikely an idea in some people’s eyes as the good asylum seeker).

Back to the story – It’s quite understandable that Joseph, however generous to other visitors, would not want to greet his brothers joyfully as soon as he recognised them.  The anger and hatred he may have felt at the time of his enslavement may have been long gone, but the wrong they had done would not have been forgotten, and how was he to know whether he could trust them now?  Reuben, the eldest, reveals that he had opposed any harm to Joseph, so in sending the rest of them back with the grain they had paid for he retains the second eldest, Simeon, as a hostage.

That is the other image I want to bring out – the hostage.  We know about hostages of course – it’s a practice found in probably all societies.  The reason for keeping a hostage is to barter them for something – ransom money, another prisoner in exchange, or a favour from the other side.  The news this week has been of a British registered tanker and its crew held hostage by the Iranians as a revenge for us detaining one of theirs.  God willing, they will eventually both be released.

Joseph knew all too well what it was to be a hostage – thrown into a pit by his brothers until he was ransomed by slave traders – out of the frying pan and into the fire we might say.  His second spell in imprisonment was for refusing to sleep with his master’s wife. We might call him a prisoner of conscience.  We know all about them too – how about Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, who is according to Amnesty International a prisoner of conscience in Iran, although she could also be described as a hostage in the international tensions between Iran and the west.

Joseph’s motive in keeping Simeon hostage, though, is different – it’s to ensure he doesn’t lose connection with his family again, and also so that he can get to see Benjamin, his youngest and closest brother.

One of the explanations sometimes given of Jesus’ death is that he was offered by God as a ransom for the evil in the world that keeps us hostages apart from God.  The good news is that we don’t have to offer anything in return – the ransom is paid, we are free to go, we only need to accept that he has reconciled is back into God’s family.   Much of the New Testament explores this theme of reconciliation, of drawing people back into God’s family where they belong.

So we have in the story of Joseph at least three universal themes that find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ – welcoming refugees, ransoming hostages, and restoring broken relationships.  Joseph overcame the setbacks of his early life through faithful service, and persevered until they had been put right – not by vengeance, but by patience, generosity and love.  May he be a model for our own discipleship.

(c) Stephen Craven 2019

Christian persecution today – lessons from the Bible

This is a talk I gave to my local church today. We lit a candle which burned throughout the service as a reminder both of the light of Christ, and in solidarity with prisoners of conscience (Amnesty’s logo being a candle surrounded with barbed wire).

Readings: Genesis 41:1-37 (Pharaoh’s dreams). 1 Corinthians 4:8-13

_____________

As I mentioned at the start of the service, our focus today is on the persecuted church. Throughout the world, discrimination against people of faith generally, but Christians in particular, is probably at the highest level it has been for centuries. The mainstream media, of course, focussed on national politics and sport, makes little mention of this. But look online, and you find that across the world, our brothers and sisters are suffering. In fact, according to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular group, “80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians.”
This discrimination occurs in more than half the countries of the world (link). Another organisation, Release International, names among the countries of particular concern at present Nigeria, China, and perhaps surprisingly India. Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, and the DRC continue to be of great concern as well. Deprived of employment, denied the right of peaceful assembly to worship, forced from their homes, and in some places murdered in cold blood simply for having converted from Islam or refusing to deny their faith in Christ. An international study in 2014 estimated that 100,000 Christians are killed every year because of their faith – that’s another ten people in the time we meet for worship this evening, and the figure has almost certainly increased since then. This morning we remembered St Margaret who suffered from Roman persecution of the Church. Her experience would be familiar to many today.
When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, they were not suffering persecution, but he had. He briefly recounts his experience as an evangelist – hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten like a slave, homeless, reviled, persecuted, slandered. His call to the Corinthians was to set aside what they saw as a privilege, a freedom from the burdens of Jewish law that meant they could ‘live like kings’. Instead they were to be like Paul, “fools for Christ”. That doesn’t mean behaving in a clownish way. Quite the opposite. The foolishness Paul has in mind is the challenge of standing up for Christian values even when it hurts. Accepting discrimination instead of resisting it. Following Christ’s teaching to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Margaret, and many other martyrs before and since, have followed this teaching. That is one challenge to all of us.
In our first reading from Genesis we encounter Joseph called up from the depths of the Pharaoh’s dungeon to interpret his dreams. As you may recall, the reason he was in prison in the first place was because he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and it appears he was there for quite some time. He, too, suffered for standing up for the principles of his faith.

While in prison, God had given him, not for the first time, the ability to interpret dreams, and the cup-bearer remembered this when the need for interpretation arose again. Pharaoh’s dream predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. The message was to prepare while times were easy, for the hard times that lay ahead. I venture to suggest that this dream has a timely warning for us today.
We may think that at least we are safe as Christians in this country. But for how long? A recent study showed that the percentage of British people calling themselves Christian – whether or not they belong to a local church – is now below 40% for the first time, while over 50% now identify as humanist or atheist. So we are definitely in a minority already. That, and the general tendency towards extremism of all kinds, suggest that living an openly Christian life will become harder, not easier, over the coming years. At the moment we don’t have to resist persecution, but we do have to resist secularism. At the moment our non-Christian neighbours may be tolerant of us, but it might not always be so.
Therefore, while we still have free speech, let us use it to stand up for our persecuted brothers and sisters across the world. Organisations such as Release International, Amnesty, Open Doors and Christian Today run campaigns, so we don’t have to start from scratch. While we still have the right to evangelise, let us use it to reach out to our community with the good news of Jesus. While we still have freedom of worship, let us not give up meeting together, as Paul wrote. Let us continue to burn the candle for justice, for freedom, for faith, for the light of Christ. Amen.

The threefold hope of Easter

The Threefold hope of Easter

A sermon preached at Adel St John the Baptist, 12 May 2019 (Evensong)

 Readings: Isaiah 63:7-14 / Luke 24:36-49

The story of the appearance of Jesus on the Emmaus road is a well known one, that has found its way even into secular use.  Luke’s account of what happened later that day is less well known.  Those disciples have run back to Jerusalem in the dark, and all of them are now are gathered in the upper room, maybe that same room where they had shared the last supper only three days earlier.

Luke uses a curious phrase to describe their state of mind – “they yet believed not for joy”, in other words they were so joyful they could not take in what was happening.  In the last few verses of the gospel which follow today’s reading, Luke describes the Ascension, after which the disciples return to the city in great joy, continually praising God. But what was it that caused them such joy throughout the forty days of Easter and even after Jesus had left them for the last time?   Easter offers a threefold hope:

First, there is the Easter acclamation: Jesus is risen!  The appearances of Jesus to the disciples were no hallucination, no ghostly haunting, as he tells them himself: “handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have”.  The physical resurrection of Christ is proof for all time that there is life beyond death, a life more than the mere shadowy existence of Sheol or Hades that was the best people had hoped for until then. That alone is a cause for joy, as we know those we have loved and lost in the Lord will rise with him.

Second, there is God’s continuing presence with his people, even after Jesus’ physical presence departed from earth.  In John’s account of this appearance it is more explicit: he breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit”.  Luke, masterful storyteller that he is, closes the first of his two volumes with a great cliffhanger of a closing line: “tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high”.  The disciples would have to wait another ten days to find out at Pentecost what “power from on high” meant.   But for us who know the end of the story, the promise of the Holy Spirit, whose fruit is love, joy and peace, should make us as joy-filled as the first disciples.

Third, scripture came alive to those disciples – at Emmaus and in the Upper Room – as never before.   The new understanding that the whole of the Jewish scriptures pointed to Jesus was another cause for joy.  For the Jews love to look back at their history, how God made himself known to their ancestors, rescued them from slavery and oppression, performed miracles whenever the survival of the race was at stake, as the reading from Isaiah reminded us.  Now they understood it all had a higher purpose in Jesus the Messiah. Those who treat the actual words of the Bible as “the Word of God” miss the point: the Word of God is his living presence, promised in the scriptures, embodied in Jesus, and enlivening all who understand it.

So this is the threefold and joyful hope of Easter: to know that there is a resurrection of the body, to experience God’s presence with us by the Holy Spirit, and to be stirred into action by understanding the living Word of God. For none of this is without a further purpose: “beginning at Jerusalem you are witnesses of these things”.  The task of witness begun at Jerusalem with eleven disciples is now the responsibility of all his billion followers, including you and me.

Our last hymn gives us an opportunity to declare this together: “We have a gospel to proclaim, good news for all throughout the world.” 

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

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.