Through the Bible in a Year – June 25

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Ki 9-11; Mat 9 Psalm 73

‘I desire mercy . . .’

It would be good to reflect on this saying. We are told it is the merciful who will receive mercy [ just as those who give will receive in all aspects of the life of the Kingdom – ‘forgive us as we forgive’, God opens the door to us in Christ – we have to step through to receive the blessings of the Kingdom.]

And so we might ask ‘Am I merciful as my Father in heaven is merciful?’ bearing in mind that we reveal the nature of our parents in this more than in anything else. Plainly much of contemporary church life is far from merciful. Yes we say we are, but THIS!! or THAT!!! cannot be the subject of mercy. We still set our own bounds

Through the BIble in a year – May 6

The scheme for May – June can be found here

Jdg 15-17; Mark 10: 32-52; Psalm 9

So finally Samson comes to a violent end. Having like Israel been seduced and lost his power, the restoration of his power leads not only to the destruction of Israel’s enemies, but to his own destruction as well. There is no real hope in this narrative

Turning to the gospel – again there is little relief. Mark keeps returning to the same themes. Jesus over and over again undoing the attempts of the disciples to write the story they want for themselves for it is found to be utterly wanting. They are blind – they do not get it. Unlike the man who cannot see – who cries out the only cry that should ever come from our lips – have mercy on us. How much of our fine church programmes cries out to Him – ‘we need your mercy!’? How much says ‘we’re doing pretty well on our own, thank you’

. . . your father is merciful

Just this week, this story from the UK caught my attention, if only for the stark quality of the reporting of the offences and the judgement. It’s worth reading if only to realise that we do not live in a world marked by the quality of mercy.

Chris Huhn and Vicky Price have done wrong, inarguably – ‘THEREFORE they must pay the price’.

It is the remorseless logic of this Sequitur that the Law demands. Judgement without mercy.

Recently I’ve taken much time to consider Peter. In some respects he is my patron Saint – with his at times almost comedic attempts to get it right and his lack of the classic virtues. Lent, when we look at the reality of our lives is a time I keep coming back to Peter.

Of course we all know of Peter’s gravest error, that he denies Jesus three times. The early church agonised for years over those who publicly disowned Jesus when faced with the possibility of death. Thus revealing that the denial is not to be dismissed as some adolescent overexuberance on the Chief Apostle’s part. Jesus’ restoration of Peter is no mere pat on the head, understanding ‘that we all make mistakes’. This is a Grave offence. Which reveals that Jesus’ actions towards Peter as in our terms frankly scandalous.

However much we try and psychologise the interchange between Jesus and Peter – ‘of course he had punished himself enough’- the fact is that there is NO punishment. Most interestingly Jesus does not even demote him. Jesus knows he cannot trust Peter, but then he knows what is in a man. He appointed him knowing he would fail him. And having asked ‘are you still on board? Are you still following?’ – reinstates him to his position of Chief Shepherd – he doesn’t even take away the privelege of martyrdom, which Peter has scorned.

What is clearly not central here are Peter’s quality as a leader, however much many ‘biblical sermon series on heroes of faith’ try and project our Ideals onto this and other frail humans. As has been remarked over and over again, by our criteria Jesus’ choice of those who will carry his mission into the world makes no sense at all.

WE would chose better, and having made such judgements, the price of failure, of not being what Our judgement had suggested those chosen actually were, would be demotion. What church leader, when fallen from Grace, is reinstated? The judgement of those who called him, or her, are shown to be faulty . . . the chosen one pays the price. Our failure of judgement is laid on the one we called.

No, what is central is not a quality in Peter. Jesus hasn’t seen something in Peter which we could see as well if only we tried hard enough. No. What is Central – indeed the only thing that matters is the call of Jesus. That is all. Peter IS unqualified – that is clear and only becomes more so. His only qualification that matters is the call of Jesus, and this endures after all the other ‘qualifications’ are shown to be straw.

In the case of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce, there is no reinstatement for ‘the guilty pair’ – no-one says to them ‘neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin’. All there is is the remorseless logic of the law, tempered by . . . nothing. They had high office, we expected better, they must pay the price . . . Of course as the elections in the Vatican remind us, Peter’s office was even higher

At the heart of the Christian faith is a dead Jew on a Roman Cross. In just a few days now we will stand before this cross. Perhaps for the first time today, one of the most significant messages that the Cross of Christ conveys to the World struck me. That is that Judgement itself is Judged and found utterly wanting. The death of the one who had no sin, for all its metaphysical overtones, in its starkness reveals that human judgement is itself only an instrument of death. That the only one who is not worthy of death is judged to be worthy of death by the world, says everything.

Of course, if Christians started to truly treat one another with the sort of mercy that Jesus showed Peter – reinstating fallen leaders, throwing parties for Prodigals, then of course we would in all likelihood lose much if not all of our credibility in the world.

But then when you think about it, the idea that the Creator of the Universe hangs on a Cross, to reveal his utter mercy. That on the third day he rose from the dead and began the work of reinstating and restoring all those who had so publicly humiliated him – is itself not credible. Perhaps that’s why we continue to judge and so be judged. We don’t really believe, that it’s true. ‘People Do need to be punished, they must pay the price’. We don’t believe the fundamental doctrine of our faith, the Jesus has paid the price.

If it really IS true however that the Chosen one pays the Price – then perhaps we might see the world differently. If the punishment Has really been laid on Him, then Jesus’ re-instatement of Peter is actually not the most incredible thing – rather the Divine Sequitur of mercy is the only possible response. It’s all that’s left. The price has been paid.

Sermon for Sunday February 17th – Evensong – Jonah – Life of God

Jonah under the gourd vine

Sermon for Sunday 17th February 2013
EVENSONG
Jonah 3
Luke 18:9-14

‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

And we all think, ‘God I thank you that I am not like this tax collector with his puffed up self righteousness . . .’ Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

Jesus’ parables have a habit of getting Us – we think that this one is about those dreadful people – those self righteous folk, and then it sneaks round the corner and comes up from behind, to undo us

Earlier this week I was in the company of a Saint – someone who offered me a cup of tea in the midst of a demanding day – not just a cup of water, but a cup of tea and some very unLenten cake – certainly, she will not lose her reward – but what marked this lady out was her pity, her mercy. As we talked of someone of a fair degree of notoriety, a real rogue – all that was in her voice and her demeanour was mercy and pity – no judgement – just mercy and pity.

Blessed, says Jesus, Blessed are the merciful, for THEY will obtain mercy – Father, forgive us, as we forgive others – the merciful receive mercy, the forgiving receive forgiveness. Those who reflect the image of God, receive the image of God in themselves.

At the heart of the Christian faith is God’s Urgent desire that his children once more reflect his image – become like him – merciful, compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. This is why Christ comes to die for us, that we might be restored to the fullness of the divine image, that that which was seemingly irretrievably broken and damaged, that that humanly speaking was beyond hope, might reveal the life of God in the world. He comes to Save us, and that Salvation is the full restoration of who we are.

To be frank, one of the reasons at root we make such a poor fist of the Christian life is actually a subtle rejection of this life. We’re quite happy by and large with continuing to be in charge of our own life – to judge those we think worthy of judgement, to withold forgiveness and restoration to those whom, well, ‘You have No idea of how they have hurt me!!’ – we remain hidden from the life of God – His way of doing things when we are confronted with it seems Outrageous – at one level or another, we Are Jonah

The book of Jonah is one of the great books of the bible for so many reasons – it is the absolute epitome of an hilarious Hebrew story, full of humour, full of wonderful detail – and it encapsulates the Gospel, the Good News. This story is all about the Outrageous Love of God . . . and the smallness of the unredeemed prophet who sits and sulks at God’s mercy.

It has a powerful parallel in the parable of the Prodigal Son – Jonah is the elder son, the one who does not live with the mercy and forgiveness of the father – who Will not enter into the joy of his master. God’s forgiveness is too much for him to swallow. As I’ve said before, Once in my time of ministry, I discovered someone who really Understood, the story of the prodigal. Telling the familiar story in a small group, someone exclaimed – ‘That’s not fair!’ – interestingly, it was an eldest child – the parable had snuck round the back and her defences were down and she was exposed to the recklessly abundant mercy of God – and it was too much for her – she couldn’t swallow it. She, like the elder Son and like Jonah couldn’t allow herself to live in a world where the love of God truly reigned, where all of a sudden she wasn’t the judge of those around her, where those she thought were worthy of getting their just deserts jolly well got them . . . I’m glad to say that my friend has made some progress in that area now, but it is a long journey, into the reality of the Life of God, his outrageous Love, his Utter mercy, and his Complete forgiveness, it is hard to swallow

Which is an appalling cue for the story of Jonah and the fish . . . Jonah as we know has heard God – the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ Nineveh – in the story of GOd’s people a byword for wickedness and evil – out of the line of Cain was proud Nineveh built. It is like being sent to some dreadful city in Mexico or Columbia, controlled by the drugs gangs – full of Violence and hatred and death – a place beyond human redemption – And he does what any reasonable person would do – he flees – he runs off in entirely the opposite direction – But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord – Immediately we are confronted with the humour of the story – ‘where can I go from your Spirit?’ says the Psalmist
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

Our hiding from God is perhaps the most ridiculous thing about us – but Jonah does what we all do – flee from the command of God – to Love, to show mercy, to declare forgiveness – but God as business to do with Nineveh and also Jonah – and Jonah is not let off the hook – another bad cue for the fish.

The fish is the place of repentance – deep in the smelly innards – Jonah is confronted with the reality of a life away from God. It’s one of those moments when the reality of our lives breaks in – like the prodigal we discover ourselves sat amongst the pigs, hungry for swill. The idolatries of our lives are revealed for what they are – the truth of a life separated from God hits us – we discover we are in hell and out of the belly of Sheol we cry to the Lord. So Jonah cries out to God from the belly of the fish As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ And the fish spews him out – and so we pick up with the story this evening, The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time . . . and of course we immediately see the grace and mercy of God, in not abandoning Jonah. Of course we maybe miss this – we think of being abandoned by GOd in the midst of our circumstances, which we never are – but here is something deeper – that God is working with Jonah through calling him to serve him.

When Jesus calls the disciples, they think that they are the centre of things – James and John want to call fire from heaven, Peter is continually setting himself up as the head of operations, even to the point of telling Jesus what he can and cannot do. They think that as his servants, they have made it – but actually in calling them to serve, to be involved in this Redemption, he is also working on them – God works his purposes out through his people, Through Jonah and Peter and James and John – but as he does this he also works out his purposes In his people. We need saving, every bit as much as those amongst whom we live and work and serve. God is at work through his church, he is also at work on and in his church, calling us also to the life we are chosen to proclaim

So Jonah, chosen to proclaim the judgement of God, and his mercy in the call to repentance – is also the object of God’s Saving love – this has as much to do with Jonah as it does with Nineveh. And Nineveh is converted – Extravagantly so! Jonah cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’  When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
We are so distracted by the fish- is it a real fish – is it a whale – is it just a metaphor – Jonah and the whale is the story we tell in Sunday School – not God and the Repentance of Nineveh – this place of wickedness ad hate and death – and they repent.
AND God forgives – Jonah does not stick in the throat of the fish – but God’s forgiveness sticks in the throat of Jonah. And his heart is revealed. He has not come to Nineveh because he has pity on the people of Nineveh – he does not come to Nineveh because he has mercy, but as the utterly unwilling servant – he would call down fire – God has poured down pity and mercy and forgiveness. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
Jonah cannot accept the Love and mercy of God. He has worshipped God with his lips from the belly of the fish – but his heart is far from him. Like the elder son in the parable, he cannot enter into the Joy of the Lord – he cannot rejoice that Nineveh has repented – he is as yet Far from the Kingdom of God – far far more troubled over a withered plant, that had given him shade, than anything or anyone else. And God opens the door to him ‘should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
People are caught up in wickedness and sin – and we don’t know why – but we try and separate out the worthy from the unworthy – God’s blanket forgiveness of Nineveh is voiced in terms of pity – ‘they do not know their right hand from their left’ – like the saint I was with the other day, all there was was mercy and pity – as there is from the heart of God revealed to us in Christ. ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing – and we say – YEs they do, It’s obvious isn’t it???’ And so we judge others and in judging others judge ourselves, being unknown to ourselves guilty of the very same things of which we accuse others
We see the Pharisee in all his pompous self righteousness ‘I thank you that I am not like other men – and we think I thank you I am not like that Pharisee . . .’
Jonah’s outward actions were right, but his heart was all wrong – Jonah’s story is a great story for Lent – a time, not for outward displays or actions, but for opening our hearts to the inner work of God – soaking in the utterly unreasonable love and mercy of God. Allow this story to confront us – to question us. What is Our Nineveh? What work of mercy are We fleeing from? What is the plant we are more concerned for than 120,000 souls and many animals? What is the scope of the outrageous love and mercy of God, and where are we holding out on it?
We see the mercy of God, the outrageous forgiveness and Love, we see that we cannot forgive everyone for everything, that we do not love our neighbour as ourselves – in God’s mercy he shows us that we are yet far from the Kingdom of God, and then if we like the prodigal come to our senses – we say with the Publican, Lord have mercy on ME, a sinner . . . and finding mercy from God, we grow in that mercy and pity towards others – those who do not know their right hand from their left, finding the words of Jesus on our lips and in our heart, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.
Amen

Through the Bible in a Year – February 10

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Job 40-42; Acts 15:36- 16:40; Psalm 51

Yesterday we thought of ‘surrendering ourselves to the unfathomable mystery of the Love of God’ – that which sustains all life and upholds the universe and is its most profound meaning.

In the sure and certain confidence of such love we may pray Psalm 51. In the Orthodox liturgy it is said every day at morning prayer. It is an acknowledgment of who we are – and who God is. It is fundamentally honest with regard to ourselves and our relationship to God. ‘Against you only have I sinned’ Our sin of course always has consequences which hurt others. Every sin does this – we are I think hopelessly naive about how our lives are so woven together that every sin has consequences of which we cannot dream, and perhaps that is just as well. [There is I think, a helpful parallel in chaos theory – which famously suggests that the beat of a hummingbird’s wing in the Philippines leads to hurricanes over the Atlantic – thus it is with our sin]

But rather than hide this profound truth about ourselves, we live out of an even deeper truth – that we live our lives in even deeper weave with that of God, who is closer to us than our own heartbeat. And so we come with confidence before him, not parading our sins, but confident in his love and mercy, with broken and contrite hearts. All our efforts to please turned to dust – which is of course the raw material of life, from the dust of the earth we were made, and from dust God can and does remake us, in his tender Love and mercy.

We say with Job ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted – my eye has seen you and I repent in dust and ashes’

Job is commended for speaking the truth about God. To daily seek forgiveness in confidence and trust, is such truth speaking, and therein lies our great Hope.