The Bible in a Year – 4 November

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

4 November. Matthew chapters 27-28

These last two chapters of the Gospel cover Matthew’s version of the most important events of the whole Bible – the death and resurrection of Jesus.  What can I add to the volumes that have been written about those world-changing three days?

Let’s consider the attitudes towards Jesus of the people who encountered him. Firstly those who responded negatively. Firstly, the “chief priests and elders” (27:20) who whipped up the emotions of the crowd to have Jesus crucified, even though Pilate was minded to release him.  Those same priests and elders panicked, if Matthew’s account is to be believed, on Easter day when the report of the resurrection reached them: like most politicians whose judgements have been proved wrong, rather than admitting  their mistake they turned to bribery and false reporting in order to suppress the truth (28:12-14).

Then there were the soldiers who mocked him, made him (and Simon) carry the cross, gambled for his clothing as he hung dying. And the two bandits hung alongside him who, along with the soldiers and passers-by, taunted him to perform one last miracle by coning down from the cross – just as he had been tempted by the Devil in the desert to perform miracles for the sake of his own health and popularity. And of course the crowd, who would go along with whatever the religious leaders said.

Two key players changed their mind in all the confusion of the proceedings of Holy Week: Pilate who seemed to believe Jesus was innocent, but was not prepared to risk his own reputation in Rome by letting a riot begin because of it; and Judas, who repented of his betrayal. But for him it was too late.

But among other observers were individuals who bucked the trend, who had the courage to ignore popular opinion and believe that Jesus was worth respect, who had at least the common humanity which cannot ignore another person in distress.  These few made all the difference.

There was Pilate’s wife, who because of a presumably God-given  dream (what was it, we wonder?) was convinced of Jesus’ innocence (27:19) – but her word was not enough to turn Pontius from his course. There were the unnamed bystanders who twice offered him wine (presumably as a feeble attempt at anaesthetising his pain – which he refused). There were his own mother, the mothers of some of his disciples and “many other women” who endured the mental torment of watching him and the two thieves die in agony, because they believed in Jesus to the end. Hats off to Joseph of Arimathea: he had the courage to believe in Jesus’ right to a respectful burial, to ask for his bloodied body, and to risk ritual uncleanness by handling it.  The two Marys (Magdalen, and the mother of James and Joseph) also were willing to start embalming the body, and to come back at first light after the Sabbath to continue despite knowing the sealed tombstone would be almost impossible to move.  If they had not done so, would they have witnessed the most incredible sight ever?

Maybe these people had been in the crowd when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and remembered that showing mercy to someone in great difficulty (irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, beliefs or what got them into difficulty) is a sign of love for God as well a neighbour.  Maybe they were also there when he said “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”.  For it is easy – I will admit to it myself – to walk past when someone is in trouble, especially if they are not like us.  It is not difficult to agree with the principle that we are all brothers and sisters in this life and we need to help each other.  But it is far more difficult to put it into practice.  Thank God for those who do, and especially for those who helped Jesus and showed him respect in both life and death.

The Bible in a Year – 1 November

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1 November. Matthew chapters 21-22

Today’s reading starts with the “triumphal entry”, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, followed by overturning the tables of the moneychangers.  In the Christian calendar this is usually read at the start of Holy Week, leading up to Easter.  That last week or so of Jesus’ life was marked by increasing conflict with the Temple authorities. Many of the parables in these chapters were told in the Temple, making reference to its activities, and were (as Matthew explicitly says) told against the Pharisees and Sadducees.   He seems to have set these two rival groups against each other, as first one and then the other tests him to see if they can catch him out.

But they cannot.  Jesus’s wise answers leaves them dumbfounded.  You can’t say that the popular prophet John was sent from God without accepting that I am too, he tells them.  It’s OK to pay taxes to the Romans as long as you also honour God and give to the work of the Temple or church.  Heaven is a completely new kind of existence where concepts such as marriage and parenthood have no meaning. The most important thing to do is love God – but it’s equally important to love other people as much as yourself. And finally, Jesus himself was greater than David, the king who everyone remembered as being God’s favourite.    No-one could contradict him on those points, although his interpretation of the Jewish scriptures was radically different from accepted teachings.

All through this time, these Jewish leaders were criticising Jesus, not praising him.  But the ordinary people praised him, and most of all the children.  As we saw yesterday, the faith of children is something precious and special, to be protected.   Jesus saw in their enthusiastic response to his teaching and healing a fulfilment of a verse from the Psalms – “Out of the mouths of infants and babies you have prepared praise for yourself” (21:1, based on Psalm 8:2).  It was in those children that Jesus saw his Kingdom starting to grow.

The Bible in a Year – 31 October.

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

31 October. Matthew chapters 18-20

The section headings in some modern Bibles are not part of the original text, but a good guide. In the NRSV chapter 18 is headed “True Greatness”.   That sounds like the title of a self-help book. What is the secret of being “truly great”?  Obviously we are not talking about “Making America great again” or similar political claims.  But what makes a great person?

As Shakespeare wrote, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”  But his character was thinking in human terms – greatness as fame, or wealth, or power.  Some adults devote all their energies to achieving at least one of these, and few of us are completely immune to their temptations.

Jesus’ example of true greatness is that of young children. He does not immediately go on to explain that, but maybe he was contrasting children, presumably at an age (and in a culture without TV celebrities) when fame and wealth and power were of no concern to them, with the anxieties that drive adults to seek greatness in the wrong form.  But he does go to great lengths to stress the enormity of the sin of “causing [a child] who believes in me to stumble”.  That might include what we would now call child abuse, but Jesus was probably intending rather the sin of making a child aware too soon of the temptations of the world, including those of fame and power.

Further on in this reading (19:13-15) he repeats this in a different form: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs”.  That verse (with its older translation “Suffer the little children…”) is carved into many a Victorian church font.  But the Victorian clergy marshalled the little children into Sunday School classes, taught them the Bible by rote, and in many cases probably also taught them to seek wealth and status in society.  They may well have been just the stumbling blocks that Jesus warned about.

The following passage refers not to children but to young adults, in particular the young man who wanted to follow Jesus but felt unable to comply with Jesus’ instruction to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (19:21).  In this respect, Jesus is not telling everyone they have to make themselves poor to be his followers.  He is acting more like a wise spiritual director who discerns what is really going on in someone’s life – in this instance, a love of money preventing him from really engaging with  Jesus’ teaching and ministry.  Someone had, at some stage in this young man’s upbringing, “caused him to stumble” by giving him the impression that maturity is about seeking wealth and fame, rather than about finding who you really are and seeking God’s will for your life.

So for those of us who minister in churches that include children in the congregation (and a church that has none is in real trouble!) our task is to draw them to “come to Jesus” without being “stumbling blocks”. That will involve helping each child to find his or her own identity as a person and guide them along their own path to maturity and spiritual awakening.  Along the way they will inevitably encounter the temptations to seek greatness in the world’s ways, but a Christian education is about equipping young people to seek a better path in life.   It’s a tall order, but as Jesus warned, if we fail, it is we who will bear the burden of guilt.

The Bible in a Year – 22 October.

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

22 October. Romans chapters 8-10

In yesterday’s post I pointed out Paul’s brief reference to the Holy Spirit in chapter 5.  He returns to the subject more extensively in chapter 8.  If Romans is at the heart of Christian theology, then this chapter is at the heart of the letter.

It was the experience of Jesus that Paul (formerly Saul) had on the Damascus Road that transformed him from being a legalistic Jew to an ardent Christian believer in God’s offer of salvation to all people – as we shall see when we get to the book of Acts.  This understanding that we are reconciled to God, not by ‘doing good’ nor even just by confessing our faults, but by trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is behind Paul’s writing to the Romans. And a sudden understanding of it through reading this book, or a commentary on it, was instrumental for two of the great men of Protestant Christianity – Luther and Wesley – in their own spiritual lives. Their understanding of this doctrine of ‘salvation by faith’ sparked both the Reformation in 16th century Europe (the 500th anniversary of Luther’s ‘conversion’ is being celebrated this month across the world), and the Methodist revival in 18th century Britain.

Paul points out in this chapter three things that the Holy Spirit does in our lives. She* brings a sense of peace to our lives as we turn from a self-focussed worldview (“the flesh”) to a spiritual one (8:6); she creates within us a sense of being children of God (8:16); and she helps us to pray, even without words (8:27).  Each one of these statements deserves a sermon in itself!

For Paul, the Spirit is always “the Spirit of Christ” – never working on her own but always with him. For that reason the Catholic church and its derivatives say in the creed that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”, although the Orthodox church still uses the simpler statement “proceeds from the Father”. Fortunately, wars are no longer started over such a small difference in theology.  The important thing is to be open to the working of the Spirit so that you too may have the revelation that changed the lives of Saul, Luther and Wesley: that having Christ and his Spirit within you, giving you faith in them, is all that you need to be right with God.  Nothing you can do by your own goodness can bring that about, nor can any sin, once confessed, prevent it.

* Lest anyone question my use of “she” and “her” to refer to the Spirit, let me explain.  Conventionally all the persons of God, Creator, Redeemer and Spirit, are referred to by male pronouns.  But a God who created man and woman in God’s own image, and who calls both men and women equally to be part of his family, cannot be restricted to one gender.  Personally I experience the presence of God, on the occasions that I do, as more of a feminine presence than a masculine one.  And given that the Hebrew word used for the spirit is feminine (so I am told), that is my preference when writing about her. The Spirit can, of course, equally be seen as having masculine qualities of power and strength. But please never say “it” for this most personal manifestation of God.

The Bible in a Year – 8 October

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8 October. Galatians chapters 1-3

The first of St Paul’s letters or epistles that we are covering is that to the Christians in Galatia.  Paul is concerned that they, whom he has previously taught the ‘gospel’, are now listening to others with different ideas about how to live as a Christian.  His use of the word gospel is interesting, since his letters were written before the biographies of Jesus that we call “the Gospels”.  The word simply means ‘good news’. It refers here to the teaching that Jesus came, not simply as a rabbi or healer, but as God in human form to reconcile all people to God.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post (on the letter of James) that whereas James insisted on the importance of ‘works’ (right living according to ethical principles), Paul stressed equally strongly that only faith in Jesus matters, and that trying to make oneself right with God by obeying the Law (religious rules) actually fights against all that Jesus came for.   How can these two contemporaries, who knew and largely respected each other, offer in the earliest surviving Christian writings two such opposed views?

For one thing, as Paul explains towards the end of his autobiography that occupies the first chapter and a half of the letter, his calling by God was to bring the gospel to the gentiles (non-Jews) who might be used to hearing all kinds of different religions with their various rituals, whereas James, along with Peter (Cephas) and others, were called to bring it to Jewish believers.

There is a very telling verse here: “for until certain people came from James, he [Cephas/Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction” (2:12).  It seems that James, who was concerned that his Jewish Christian hearers should not lose sight of the high moral standards that Jews were expected to follow, insisted on the new converts being circumcised. They might therefore have assumed that they had to obey the regulations too. Paul however felt that he had to emphasise that both circumcision, and keeping the regulations, were quite unnecessary for someone who had not grown up in the Jewish culture.

Few new Christians today come from Judaism (though there are a few, who style themselves ‘Messianic Jews’). For most, they will need more to take in Paul’s teaching that unlike all other religions, Christianity is not about conforming to rules, it is about being conformed by the Holy Spirit to the likeness of Jesus in the way that we live.  He showed that loving God and your neighbour is not optional; but it is not achieved by the keeping of many regulations.

The Bible in a Yer. 11 September

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11 September. Nehemiah chapters 12-13

In these chapters Nehemiah establishes the pattern of Temple worship and the Sabbath observance. He leads a great procession around the city walls to bless the rebuilt city. But he treats badly those who continued to buy, sell or work on the Sabbath day, those who have failed to give the required tithe to pay the temple servants, and Tobiah who had set up a home or office in the temple store, thus defying its purpose.

As with my comments yesterday about the condemnation of intermarriage (which is repeated here in chapter 13) it seems that this re-establishing of the patterns of a religious life was Nehemiah’s overriding concern.   People would naturally start and grown their businesses – farming, shopkeeping or whatever – but they needed encouragement (sometimes of a rather forceful kind) to build religious community.

It is no different today.  As a lay reader in the Church my role is largely to encourage “ordinary” Christians in church attendance and in relating faith to everyday life.  This is not easy. The many secular activities that we all get involved in make it difficult to establish or keep patterns of prayer and worship. The hectic, technological and rapidly changing pace of life around us makes it increasingly difficult to see the relevance either of an “unchanging” faith or of ancient books.  But we must try, or we will quickly lose touch with the spiritual side of life.

The Bible in a Year – 29 August

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29 August. Daniel chapters 3-4

In chapter 3, three of the four Jewish exiles – but not Daniel himself – are thrown into the furnace for having refused to worship the golden statue that the king set up, and also refused the opportunity to recant.  They are saved by an angel (or maybe the incarnation of God himself, for the one “like a son of man” is a title Jesus took for himself). Nebuchadnezzar, in a fashion typical of this style of writing, immediately changes from persecuting the Jews to proclaiming theirs the official religion of his empire (as we saw in Esther).

 

Miracles aside, this is a story of true witness. We are not told whether the golden statue is of Nebuchadnezzar himself – though it might have been, since dictators are prone to having statues of themselves erected in their lifetimes – but whether it was that, or the image of a Babylonian god, to worship it (or the king himself) would for the Jews have been to break the greatest commandments.  These men passed the ultimate test of faith, which led to what should have been their martyrdom.  In every age there have been people of any religion whose faith has been strong enough to lead them down this path, and they are rightly honoured. But true martyrdom is always about suffering for peacefully holding to one’s principles in the face of violence and intolerance; those who claim as martyrs people who have killed others “in the name of God” fail to understand what a martyr really is – a peaceful witness to truth.

 

In our liberal society, we agonise over whether followers of one religion should be allowed to display symbols of their religion (be it crosses, turbans, painted faces or veils) or to be ‘witnesses’ in the sense of proselytising (explaining their faith to others with a view to conversion).  Sometimes the decision is reached that such symbols or witnessing should not be allowed in public places in order not to offend others.  This is regrettable, but it is a long way from state-sponsored torture.

 

In chapter 4, which is probably not to be seen as chronologically following the earlier one, Nebuchadnezzar sends another edict around his empire telling how he had another apocalyptic dream, that Daniel interpreted as predicting his downfall and madness (eating grass like oxen) until he should honour God’s authority. Again, this comes to pass (not immediately, but a year later) until after seven years of such exile and madness the king repents and ends up worshipping God.

 

This is harder to understand. Perhaps the lesson is that megalomania such as that displayed by Nebuchadnezzar and many other dictators and emperors over the centuries is itself a form of madness, and needs to be treated by an opposite extreme – an addiction to excessive power being removed only by the “withdrawal symptoms” of excessive humility. From a theological perspective, any action or attitude that causes us to rebel against God’s will might be seen as a form of insanity, and an appropriate form of penitence is the antidote to it.

 

These two chapters together – telling of martyrdom and witness, of rebellion against God and humble penitence – point us to spiritual principles that apply to every believer, to some degree. The challenge facing you if you are a person of faith is hopefully less life-threatening than that facing the three young men, but you may still find there are times when you are put on the spot to justify your faith-inspired actions (or refusal to act as instructed). Your ‘insanity’ or mine is hopefully much milder than that of Nebuchadnezzar or other despots, but nevertheless we need to be willing to confront it, and accept whatever form of penitence God considers necessary to bring us back to our senses.

The Bible in a Year – 9 August

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9 August. Job chapters 14-16

Job continues his rant against God, though now it becomes more of a grumble. Unlike trees that can sprout new growth after being cut down, he says, humans will not live again on this earth after they die. So he asks God not to look on us in our imperfections, but instead allow us to enjoy this life in peace (14:6), and for himself to be sent to Sheol (in other words, to be allowed to die) so that he will not feel God’s gaze on him.  That is the position of the agnostic, who believes in the possibility of God’s existence but prefers to ignore it and get on with life, while recognising death as the finality it is, bodily speaking.

Eliphaz then speaks again, and his charge is one to be taken seriously: “But you are doing away with the fear of God, and hindering meditation before God” (15:4).  For those of us who do believe in an actively loving God, it is sad to see people turning away from him, letting the circumstances of life draw them away from the same God who also wants them to enjoy his love and compassion even in bad times.  But unfairly, Eliphaz then goes on to compare Job with those who do not believe in God at all, who “trust in emptiness, deceiving themselves; for emptiness will be their recompense” (15:31). Emptiness – maybe a similar concept to the “vanity” of Ecclesiastes –  is the faith of the atheist, the very opposite of the idea of a world created by a loving God and filled with meaning.

Eliphaz calls Job’s speeches “windy” and Job returns the jibe.  How can he and his friends understand Job’s position when they are not sharing his experience?  He feels to have been “set up as a target” by God – an accurate assessment of the spiritual battle that was revealed in chapter 1 – yet he still does not lose faith in the God whom he can still describe as his witness in heaven, who will vouch for him (16:14).  That is the difference between the atheist or agnostic and the true believer – one who will never cease to trust in God’s essential goodness, even when it seems one is on the receiving end of God’s anger.

The Bible in a Year – 31 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and also my introduction to the Proverbs.

31 July. Proverbs chapters 16-18

We continue with three more chapters of Solomon’s brief sayings.  I am going to focus on a few that tie in with the book I am reading at present.

 

“Those who are attentive to a matter will prosper, and happy are those who trust in the Lord. “ (16:20); “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones. “ (17:22) “The human spirit will endure sickness; but a broken spirit—who can bear?” (18:14). These all address the problem of human happiness.  The book I am reading is “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind “by Yuval Noah Harari.  Towards the end, he considers whether human progress and civilisation have made people happier.

 

By looking at happiness as a relative concept (experience relative to expectation) rather than something absolute, he concludes that it is not.  On that view, the people of Solomon’s time, most of whom lived what we would now call a deprived existence (unheated homes, untreated water, no sewerage, high infant mortality, and the ever-present threat of war) would actually be no less ‘happy’ than an ordinary worker living in Britain today. That is because, if his understanding of psychology is correct, each person is genetically predisposed to be either happy (the “cheerful heart”), unhappy (the “broken or downcast spirit”), or somewhere in between.   Temporary circumstances such as a birth or marriage on the one hand, or illness or bereavement on the other, may make a short term difference, but after a while we revert to our default level. Fortunately I am one of the happy ones.

 

These proverbs seem to be saying something similar, with one difference.  Harari, although of Jewish background, takes an agnostic and utilitarian view of religion, seeing religious beliefs as myths that help people get through life and form communities, rather than representing any real truth. But for those who do believe, happiness is associated not just with a genetic predisposition but with “trust in the Lord”. To believe that there is an ultimate power who created you, loves you and guides you through good and bad times – that is more than even a “cheerful heart” can bring

The Bible in a Year – 14 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

14 July. Psalms 90-96

Psalm 90 is unlike most of the others.  For a start, it is described in the heading as a prayer rather than a song, and attributed to Moses rather than to David or one of his contemporaries. Presumably by their time (several hundred years after Moses) it had been handed down orally before being written down and set to music.   Also, it seems quite different in its theme, more in line with the “wisdom books” of the Bible such as Ecclesiastes.   If Moses did compose it himself, it may have been at the end of his long life, looking back on the generations he had seen born and die in Egypt and then in the wilderness.

 

He considers how even a long human life – 70 or 80 years – is a mere moment in God’s eyes, as fleeting as dust, and “a thousand years are as a day”.  In fact, if God is eternal, the creator of time itself, then there is no difference to God between the nanosecond lifespan of the most unstable atom, and the several-billion-year existence of a star.

 

What matters, says Moses, is not quantity of life but quality.  The life of 80 years may be “all toil and trouble” (v.10), but more important is that we ask God to “satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (v.14).  He is concerned more for the next generation (v.16) than his own.

hen&chicken

Psalm 91 is about God’s protection, and includes the image of God guarding us under his wings. Surely that should be “her wings” –  it is the mother bird who protects her young, as I saw only recently with this 2-week-old-chick.  Even so, it is hard to have faith that “Because you have made the Lord your refuge … no evil shall befall you” (v.9-10), as experience shows that people of faith suffer no less than others.  Even Jesus, when he was tempted by the Devil to put into practice verses 11-12 “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you … so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”, he sent the Devil packing with a retort that we must not put God to the test. God’s protection is not to be treated link a cloak of invisibility or some other super-power, but rather about him not letting anything destroy what really matters – faith itself.

 

Psalm 94 has a similar theme, that true wisdom takes the long view that faith and obedience are a better way of achieving long-term justice and peace than going along with short-sighted fools in violence and short-term gain.  But Psalms 92, 93, and 95 are joyful songs of praise.  In fact Psalm 95, known from its opening word as the “Venite” (“come!”) is still said or sung at morning prayer every day in the Anglican tradition.