Shadowlands

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  (John 3.1-2)

His religious commitment was not in doubt, he was an experienced interpreter of the Scriptures and he followed a demanding rule of life. A teacher and a thinker, he was well-organised, thorough, competent and well-respected. This may be supposed from Nicodemus’ identity as a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. He responded to Jesus’ teaching in a thoughtful, questioning and respectful way, rather than feeling threatened and trying to outdo him or trip him up, as were some of his fellow Pharisees.

candlelight-801322_1280As a result of his position, he had good reason to approach Jesus under cover of night and out of public view. Yet John’s Gospel also marks off darkness from light symbolically. Jesus himself claimed (and was immediately challenged by the Pharisees), I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8.12).

Seeking God

Can humans reach out to God, whose Spirit, ‘the wind of God’ was present at creation? No. ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases.’ Instead, God has come to us and can bring about a rebirth and a restoration of the relationship of trust between God and humankind.

A simple question.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. (John 3.9).

Rabbi to rabbi: not understanding but trust

At first Jesus explains in Nicodemus’ own terms: an interpretation of the Torah. The Israelites under Moses, suffering a deadly disease in the wilderness, a consequence of their own lack of trust in God, were invited to acknowledge this and, by faith, receive life  (Numbers 21.4-8). Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (John 3.14-15).

The Gospel in a nutshell

John 3.16 Breath-taking in its simplicity. It tells of the trust that was built into creation once more becoming a reality. The door stands open. How can this be? It is by the very nature of God, who is love. It is a gift, which becomes a reality when received in the grateful acceptance that is faith.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

In the light…

And Nicodemus? He is referred to twice more in John’s Gospel, in each instance with the explanation that he had first come to Jesus by night. In both cases he identifies himself clearly with Jesus, while doing so by means of the law and ritual in which he had been trained. In the first he questions the conduct of his own colleagues towards Jesus, only to be turned on scornfully as being himself one of Jesus’ followers (John 7.50-52). In the second he anoints the body of Jesus at his death and assists Joseph of Arimathea at His burial (John 19.38-42).

In view of the secrecy surrounding his first meeting with Jesus, is it not also likely that it was Nicodemus himself who was John’s source for the wonderful account of that meeting given in John 3?

 

Free from distractions

:ow disheartening it is to feel that we are constantly being side-tracked from the main  business of our lives! This frustrates us in our daily round (bureaucracy, household chores, distractions on the internet, unsought obligations) or as we look back with regret at longer periods in our lives when we lost a sense of purpose.

It helps, of course, to identify clearly the purpose that we are being distracted from. The first representatives of humankind had a God-given purpose, working with their Creator in caring for the creation: The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it..’ (Genesis 2.15)

apples-379892_640All that they needed had been provided. What response could there be other than trust, obedience and walking with their Creator? Yet, this was not enough.   Despite the abundance of food supplied for them, they reached for what had been set apart, they rebelled against God and the friendship was broken.

 A retreat?

Retreats are everywhere: for businesses, churches and individuals, and there is  quite a “retreat industry.” There is value in trying to put aside the distractions and making the most of our God-given time, but it can’t be confused with any kind of “self-help,” let alone an escape or anaesthetic, if we are to rediscover God’s purpose.  It will involve restoring trust (and this is where fasting comes in), obedience (seeking God’s will in the Scriptures and listening to his voice in prayer) and the restoration of our relationship with the Creator through Christ our Lord. Only then will we be able to realign ourselves with his purposes for us. This is the source of peace, something which no wellness centre can supply.

Getting away from it all – in the wilderness

In the wilderness (which in the Bible is certainly not a retreat centre and is generally a setting for a struggle) Jesus, weakened by hunger, was tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4.15). He declares trust in his Father and obedience to his word: It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4). His ministry, suffering and death cannot be separated from God’s purposes. Indeed a refusal to walk with God is identified as both rebellion and, ultimately, idolatry.   

Purpose and peace

Trust, obedience and a restored relationship with God are themes echoed in the closing lines of James Edmeston’s hymn Lead us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us:

…thus provided, pardoned, guided,

Nothing can our peace destroy.

And thus we can face the distractions.

27th February George Herbert, Priest, Poet (1593-1633)

Montgomery, Powys, Wales is a very special place. It is associated for me with  my family and with some wonderful people. It was also the birthplace of George Herbert, whose life and work is commemorated today.  SONY DSC

Herbert was born into an aristocratic family and had a brilliant career in academic and public life. However, he withdrew from both in order to serve the Lord devotedly in a rural parish. His poems are jewels of English Christian verse.

Here is one of Herbert’s best known poems. I recommend reading it aloud.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

 

Flourishing or stunted?

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6.25).

We left off last week with the reminder that a daily choice to follow the way of our Creator is not repression but transformation. While anything that draws us away from living our lives in full relationship with God prevents us from becoming the best version of ourselves, our commitment to living our lives with Christ as Lord gives us access to infinite forgiveness and constant renewal from the damage that we do to ourselves through sin.

Stunted growth

images62yk0he1Worry is one such sin by which we damage our relationship with God and thus do damage to ourselves. To worry about something usually means becoming trapped in regret about a past situation or anxiety about a future event. We become paralysed and stop growing. This is distinct from ‘care’, which is usually energising, driving us to work harder to see the object of our care become the best it can be, often enabling us to work for God.

Worry can also reflect a lack of faith – a lack of trust that God will provide for us, just as he does for the lilies, and the sparrows. This can become sinful as we end up distancing ourselves from God. The inevitable outcome is that we do not flourish.

Who we were meant to be 

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1.31)

Before humankind had done anything to distance itself from God, the Creator saw good in every aspect of his creation. In restoring us he wants to see us at our best and will do everything he can to ensure that things are that way. As long as we live in loving, thoughtful, prayerful lives with God at the centre, then the Creator’s goodness will flow through us into the world, bringing its redeeming and sustaining power to everything it touches.

With thanks to Lee Eccleston.

The full text of Lee’s Talk can be found here

Choose Life

 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.19).

What do ‘the commandments’ mean for Christians?

They are not simply a spiritual health check.

The Pharisees could tick all the boxes using the Decalogue questionnaire and answer a lot of more detailed questions as well. This did not put them in the clear (Matthew 5.20), any more than a clean bill of health at the doctor’s surgery can save us from death. It may also be possible to hide a condition or avoid having the doctor ask too many questions. Spiritual disease too may go unrecognised, hidden under religious observance, and human laws, important though they are in preventing the destructive effects of sin, are still only a means of treating the symptoms (Matthew 5.21-27).

The heart may not always be the best guide.

untitledIn our individualistic world God’s commandments are often regarded as prescriptive, repressive and even psychologically harmful. The blueprint for living as intended by the Creator is rejected, while, ironically, short-lived health regimes may be readily accepted. Christians may find themselves conforming. Fearful of somehow losing, denying or stifling love, we may choose, mistakenly, to ‘listen to our hearts’ and trust the wrong impulses. In failing to discern or in ignoring the signposts we have been given, we wander from the very source and supply of love, a love lasting and healing and as necessary to life as water.

Obedience to God’s commandments is essential for a healthy life in Christ.

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5.21-37 shows how God’s commandments provide challenging lifestyle choices for the Christian. These choices, such as that of reconciliation over anger, need to be exercised. They are not life-sapping legalism but life-promoting. One choice may be to undergo some ‘pruning’ of otherwise natural desires in order to encourage healthy growth (verses 29-30). Yes, we are approaching Lent.

The newly-called disciples had already made the fundamental decision to follow Jesus and had been given a sign in the turning of water into wine, a token of an abundance of life. The response now could not be to ‘tick all the right boxes,’ but instead to go on following daily in the power that would be given to them. Obedience to God is not repression but allows God to transform. Choose life!

Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. (Deuteronomy 30.19).

The salt of the earth

You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5.3)

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Matthew 5.16)

Looking back on his many years working in hospitals, our Chaplain recalled how just one patient could life the mood of a ward or, alternatively, sour it. This did not appear to be related to the severity of the patient’s medical condition.

I too have been struck by the effect of contentment or discontent. As a young ‘Meals-on-Wheels’ volunteer in Croydon I had to deliver hot (although by present standards not exactly appetising) meals to the elderly and housebound. The atmosphere in one house or, more often, small flat, was frequently in complete contrast to the next one visited. All those elderly people had known hardship and probably loss, having survived wartime conditions, yet one would greet me with pleasure, cheerfulness and gratitude, while another would find in my appearance a pretext to grumble at everything. Who can guess what experiences lay behind their obvious discontent? It was clearly not dependant on their physical condition. This memory has served as a warning!

Is this another case of optimism and pessimism (see last week’s blog), personality or family legacy? A hidden worm, eating away at the personality over many years? Perhaps. In some ways a sense of injustice may generate hopelessness that is as hard to bear as chronic disease.

Last week’s Gospel reading told of abundant hope, of God’s mercy, infinite grace and love, as revealed in the ‘sign’ of the turning of the water into wine. It was not just ‘enough’ for the feast but more than enough. The ‘good works’ of the followers of Jesus are, after all, also the grateful overflowing of his love into the lives of others. The effect on us of those whose lives are beacons of humility, contentment and joy testify to this.

The Chaplain’s visit to us on a rather gloomy February evening was, in fact, an illustration in itself.

Not by halves

Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now. (John 2.10).

Disappointment. Who does not at some time experience this with regard to pfo59191situations, people, the Church or ourselves? Our expectations constantly exceed reality and there is a falling off, whether sudden or gradual, a fading into greyness and boredom. This may turn to bitter cynicism or even depression and despair.

The often cited ‘glass half full’ against ‘glass half empty’ approaches do not help, representing as they do optimism and pessimism respectively, states of mind that are often without basis, although they may make the present more or less bearable for a short time.

Christian hope is, in contrast, realistic, the resources are unlimited and it is forward-looking. In the story of the marriage feast at Cana (John 2.1-11) this is illustrated by Jesus’ mother. Her hope was grounded on her relationship with Jesus. She knew him!

They have no wine.

Whether a ‘lack’ or a ‘need,’ the situation can be brought to Jesus in the knowledge that it is in his power to change it without trying to tell him how this should be done

Do whatever he tells you.

  • Acceptance of God’s timing (Jesus had replied ‘My hour has not yet come’). Individual events are part of an eternal plan, a bigger picture, which we may not be able to comprehend.
  • Acceptance that we have no claim of our own and cannot force God to act as we wish. This applied to his mother too! Are we sure of God’s power and mercy or of our own entitlement?
  • Trust and obedience. Mary’s response recalls her earlier acceptance ‘Let it be to me according to your word’ (Luke 1.38). Nor should we forget the effect of her trust on the servants, who took the contents of a water jar to the chief steward! Trust is not a passive matter.

It is a picture of the creative abundance of God, and points to the nature of Jesus as God himself,’ writes Archbishop Justin Welby in his new book Dethroning Mammon, referring to this story.

The best is yet to come.