Above the voices of the world around me

Today’s hymn from “Sing Praise” is Timothy Dudley Smith’s “Above the voices of the world around me”. It comes with its own tune, but John played it to the better known Londonderry Air (Danny Boy) which the words do fit, with the odd stretched syllable. The words are copyrighted and too long to be reproduced here without permission but can be found online here.

The three verses are all written in the first person – it’s an introspective hymn – and the theme is being called by Jesus, who is named in each verse.  The first is about the voice of Jesus calling me, as the first line has it, “above the voices of the world around me”.  His call is, as one would expect from a Lenten hymn, to “turn from sins and put the past behind you, take up your cross and come and follow me”.   In Lent we read of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness where it is the Devil’s voice that tries to distract him from his mission, but the Devil usually works more subtly through other things, whether the classic ‘deadly sins’ of lust, gluttony, anger and so on, or today’s more subtle temptations of TV, social media and Internet.

The second verse asks what my response might be, feeling that I have nothing worthy to offer Jesus, but concludes that “I come … and in repentance turn to you alone”.   The Gospels record Jesus calling his motley crew of fishermen, tax collectors and housewives, without asking for any testimonials.  When he called Nathaniel Bartholomew, he already saw into his heart and knew him to be a “true Israelite”. If Jesus calls us to serve him, he already knows he has found what he’s looking for: we need no qualifications other than willingness, no reference other than his own death on the cross to make us worthy.

The call of Nathaniel (Bartholomew)

The last verse is the promise to serve in faith. In singing it  ith meaning, I ask Jesus to “let me become what you shall choose to make me”, which may well be different from what I had in mind for my life.  Some people find themselves called to a life of poverty or celibacy, others to working in dangerous places and among deprived communities, others to long hours of unpaid voluntary work.  But all in the name of serving Jesus.  What matters is that, as the final line puts it, “in his love my new-born life begins”.

Hope of our calling

The hymn of the day for 15 January is “Hope of our calling” by Ally Barrett.  It follows on from yesterday’s themes of Jesus being called to baptism and service and nuns being called to a life of prayer and work for God, to remind us that all who follow Jesus are answering God’s call.  It’s worded very positively, the theme of hope running through it paired with other positive words (courage, strength, grace, faith and Spirit).  

We are challenged, in the power of that Spirit, to “bring the gospel to a waiting world”, but also to serve in a practical way (‘washing each other’s feet’ as often practised on Maundy Thursday) and to work for righteousness.  This theme links with (and may be inspired by) the Church of England’s “five marks of mission” – to proclaim the Good News; to teach, baptise and nurture new believers; to respond to human need by loving service; to transform unjust structures of society; and to safeguard the integrity of creation. 

That balance of specifically religious work with the practical building and sustaining of society that engages people of all faiths and none is what a living faith should look like.  Christians are generally not to be set apart from society (the monastic calling that we looked at yesterday is only for the few) but should, as Jesus put it, be ‘salt in the earth and a light to the world’. 

The last verse marks this as a communion hymn by reference to the sacrament, and  appropriately draws on the deacon’s words of dismissal at the end of the communion service – we “go in peace to love and serve the Lord”. To which we respond, “in the name of Christ, Amen”.

When Jesus comes to be baptised

The daily hymn for 14 January is “When Jesus comes to be baptised”, the second on this theme – I just didn’t get round to typing my notes until the following day.  Its composition is attributed not to an individual but to a community – the Catholic nuns of Stanbrook Abbey in Yorkshire. Perhaps this is appropriate, for the words of the hymn meditate on the sacrifice (in a metaphorical sense) that Jesus made by coming forwards to be baptised in the Jordan river.  He “leaves behind the years of safety and peace”, to bear the sins of humankind, and eventually to suffer death on the cross. 

Anyone who becomes a nun, monk or other member of a religious community, but especially those who take lifelong vows, also has to sacrifice the comforts of their former years, and to take on responsibilities – to pray regularly, to study theology, and usually to work hard at whatever occupation keeps the community going financially, be it farming, craft work or teaching.  It’s not an easy life.  

But there’s another side to this religious commitment.  Jesus, the hymn reminds us, was also called to preach the gospel, to bring comfort and healing.  There were frustrations, of course, where he preaching was opposed or healing was not possible for lack of faith.  But he must have found satisfaction when the message was received and understood, when the blind could see or the lame walk.  Likewise, nuns or monks find their satisfaction in the worship of the community, in serving retreatants or other guests, and (if they are not in an enclosed order) in work with the local community.  

When Simon Peter said to Jesus “Look, we have left our homes and followed you”, Jesus replied “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”  (Luke 18:28-30, NRSV). By which, of course, he meant not money, but satisfaction of a more real and lasting kind.

The last verse of the hymn is a Christian doxology (praise to the Holy Trinity).  Perhaps this is because that is the form of words used at Christian baptism, but it’s widely believed that these words attributed to Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel were an addition by the community that Matthew belonged to.  They cannot have been used by John at Jesus’ own baptism, because he would effectively have been saying  “I baptise you in the name of the father, and yourself, and the Holy Spirit” which would make no sense.  That doesn’t mean the doctrine of the Trinity is not helpful, just that we shouldn’t see it as something taught by Jesus himself.

The Bible in a Year – 15 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

15 November. Luke chapters 4-5

Each of the Gospel writers has different emphases.  Luke was a physician and so it is not surprising that he focuses on the healing miracles of Jesus. But he focuses on other things too.  Unlike Matthew and Mark who suggest that Jesus went straight into a preaching ministry after his baptism, Luke shows Jesus preaching in the synagogues after his baptism (and after the desert temptations).  Only when he is asked to preach on the text from Isaiah about the good news being shown by good deeds does he begin to heal (4:14-19). Even then, “making the blind see” is one of only three signs of the Gospel in that passage, the other being releasing captives and freeing the oppressed.  So for Luke, physical healing from illness or disability was only one aspect of the wholeness that Jesus brought: a right understanding of God and his laws, and freedom from being put down in any way by other people, were at least as important.

Another difference is that Luke has a particular interest in demons and devils.  This is shown in chapter 4 not only in his own desert temptations, but in the demon at Capernaum (34), and the many in Nazareth (41), that recognised him as the “Holy one of God”.  It seems that Jesus knew he had to fight the devil, but wanted to put off that moment as long as necessary.  By resisting the three temptations of working miracles, seeking earthly power and putting God to the test, he made the devil go away “until an opportune time” – which might be seen as the attempt by the men of Nazareth to kill him not long afterwards (29), or as the plots of the Pharisees and the betrayal of Judas that led to his crucifixion three years later.  In between those times, Jesus seems to have been untroubled by demonic activity himself.  Apart from the very few people who genuinely suffer demon possession, for most of us the devil tempts us from time to time, but he does not stick around for long if we don’t take his bait. “Resist the devil and he will flee” (James 4:7).

Finally, I would just like to share an unrelated thought that just came to me as I read about the calling of Levi (5:27-28): “After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.”

What happened to Levi’s money?  This money-obsessed man had been sitting at his booth all day raking in the taxes (some of which he would have kept for himself) then accepted Jesus’ call to follow him, and without further ado walked away.  The people around must have wondered when he was going back, but when they realised he was not returning, surely they would have rejoiced and reclaimed the piles of cash for themselves?  When Jesus calls someone to follow him, it is others who benefit.

The Bible in a Year – 30 May

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

30 May. Ezekiel chapters 1-3

What a dramatic start!  Unlike some of the other prophets of the Old Testament, we hear nothing of Ezekiel’s past, but are presented with both a first-person and third-person accounts of his earth-shaking vision.  Full of vivid imagery of light, noise and motion – wheels, eyes, flashes of lightning, the faces and feet of humans and animals, angels’ wings –  clearly Ezekiel was struggling to put into words what could not really be described. This was the ‘shekinah’ or glory of God, a privilege which few people have ever had (Moses, Jesus and his disciples Peter, James and John among them).

 

The whole of the first three chapters is taken up with his two encounters (or ‘epiphanies’) with this glory. Before we get to read the details of God’s prophecy through Ezekiel to his captive people in Babylonia, we have to understand the instructions given to Ezekiel by God in this vision. Eight times the Jewish exiles are called a “rebellious house”, and it is clear that they are unlikely to act on whatever God’s instructions to them are going to be.  It is also clear that they would oppose Ezekiel, and would be like “briers, thorns and scorpions” to him (those things that prick, scratch and sting).  Nevertheless, Ezekiel would be failing in his calling and duty, and held guilty by God, if he did not pass the instruction on.

 

In a much smaller way, that is the challenge facing all people of faith.  If we believe we have a message for the world from God then we must deliver it, however much opposition we might face.  This week the Archbishops of England have asked all the churches to pray for their communities, and in particular for the spreading of the Christian message among them, under the title “Thy kingdom come” (words taken, of course, from the Lord’s Prayer as taught by Jesus).   Unlike Ezekiel who had no support for his one-man ministry, church members can come together for mutual support in prayer, speaking and action.

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 20 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

20 March. Judges chapters 6-8

The story of Gideon is one of those beloved of Sunday school teachers, partly because of the very visual imagery and lots of action – threshing wheat, laying out fleeces, lapping water like dogs, smashing pottery and blowing trumpets.  Strangely, the trampling of captured enemy leaders with thorns and briars is not mentioned so much.  But the story is also popular as it illustrates a couple of things about living by faith.

 

Firstly, that quality is more important than quantity.  When called by God to lead his people into battle, Gideon started with 32,000 men – still a lot fewer than the 135,000 of the Midianite army, but all he could muster from the Northern tribes.  Yet God says that he still had too many, in case the Israelites took credit for a victory.  He gradually reduces the number to three hundred choice troops, those who were not afraid and who lapped water like dogs (one interpretation of this is that they remained alert and looking around them, unlike those who knelt down to use their hands).  With those 300, and under cover of darkness, Gideon achieves a victory by psychological means – imagine the terror of the Midianites roused in the middle of the night by the sounds of trumpets and lights suddenly appearing all around them! So one lesson is that by waiting for the right time when God gives the word, carefully selecting the right people, and making use of all our senses, we can achieve results for God  against what may seem impossible odds.

 

The other lesson that is often taught from these chapters is that of ‘putting out a fleece’ that is, setting a test for God to pass before we accept his will, as Gideon did.  I’m wary of that, as Jesus clearly said “do not put the Lord your God to the test”.  It’s not really for us to dictate to God how he should reveal his will to us.  If you have doubts about whether  a perceived call to Christian service, or word of prophesy, is genuine, it is usually far better to discuss it with the elders of your church, than to set random ‘tests’ for the Almighty.

 

The Bible in a Year – 2 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

2 March. Deuteronomy chapters 8-10

Again (see yesterday’s reading ) we see the origins of the discipline of Lent, both in the reminder that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (8:3, as quoted by Jesus to the Devil) and also in Moses’ reminder that the twice spent forty days and nights fasting and praying, first to reach a level of enlightenment in which he could know God ‘face to face’ and receive the commandments, and again in prayer for God’s people in their disobedience.  Jesus likewise spent 40 days and nights fasting in the desert as he wrestled with temptation before starting his ministry of teaching and healing.

 

It is a biblical pattern that God calls, people hear, but before they can fully and effectively do God’s work they must receive what the Church calls ‘ministerial and spiritual formation’ – reaching a deeper understanding of God, his teaching through the Bible, and one’s relationships with other people.  Most of us though, take a lifetime of training and experience to achieve this, if at all, rather than the ”crash course” that Moses, Jesus and also St Paul took.