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.
As 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).
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?
Dethroning Mammon (by Justin Welby) Chapter 2 Bible Focus Luke 19
What we measure controls us is the far-reaching theme of the second chapter of our Lent study book. Some of the basic economic calculations on which western financial systems rely are identified as being misleading or even dishonest, contributing to distorted vision, disillusionment, social injustice or even economic breakdown. As a result, what is difficult to measure economically, such as voluntary work, environmental factors or prayer, become undervalued. We need to adjust our values to a different scale.
- I am encouraged by Archbishop Justin’s point that an action is not defined by its strategic importance as seen from a human time-bound perspective. After Jesus had driven out those who were commercialising the worship in the temple in Jerusalem, ‘the temple may well have gone back to its old ways.’ Mammon, had, however, been dethroned, as it is in all the moments of resolution ‘when we seek all that we need only and exclusively from Jesus.’
- We need to be alert to the dangers of acoustic measurement, assigning the greatest value to what shouts the loudest.
- What are the other measurables (apart from money) that control our lives? In what ways do they influence our habits and motivations (Justin Welby). There are probably too many ‘checklists’ and ‘to do’ lists to which we can become enslaved. 10,000 steps per day? Preparations for Christmas? Achievements on our CV?
- We need to be awake to the way in which all aspects of life can become ‘Mammonised,’ whether in national life, church life, or personal life. One example given is the difficult relationship between worship and church buildings.
- While agreeing with what Archbishop Justin says, I’m also left with nagging questions about the need to measure/calculate in order to live responsibly, without ‘sponging’ on others or causing difficulty or even suffering to those close to us. For those of us brought up by parents who had experienced post-war ‘austerity’ such behaviour represents a lack of care for others and moral disgrace. How can we distinguish Mammon and the instinct to ‘look after the pennies’? How much is enough?
- I’m also left with the practical question of whether the economy of the society we live in should measure the value of all work. On the one hand it seems necessary if voluntary contributions are not to be taken for granted and the ‘donors’ exploited. On the other, the true value of the work cannot be measured simply in relation to national wealth.
: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)
All 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.
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.
Dethroning Mammon (by Justin Welby) Chapter 1
Bible Focus: John 11
Here are just a few observations and questions arising from the first chapter of our Lent study book. Rather than identifying particular moral or ethical issues, Archbishop Justin attempts to encourage us to adjust our vision of the world in which we live. This is extremely difficult to do and to communicate.
- We may see and react to some of the issues of injustice and greed in our society but still be unaware of the creeping tide of materialism that is continually washing around us whatever our surroundings and personal lifestyle.
- Materialism is made even more pervasive by the fact that the economic system that tries to claim our lives is global and not simply local. An example of this that occurs to me is the impact of commercially developed infrastructure and patterns of employment on nomadic people. In the case of the Inuit people of North America and Greenland this change has taken place within my own lifetime. It has inevitably made paid employment a necessity for many and has brought about sudden urbanisation, bringing in its wake problems such as alcohol and drugs. Within a few decades Mammon has dramatically increased in power.
- We allow our lives to be circumscribed by money so that even people of faith view it as a fact of life which limits hope (as was death in John 11).
- Many people in society would be prepared to admit that their lives are spent mainly in the service of Mammon, accepting this as a fact, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly. Those who worship Christ as Lord, however, cannot “serve two masters” and must therefore distinguish their attitude to money from that of a society committed to serving it.
- Why is it that when we feel compassion or the need for urgent action, the first instinct is to give money? Is this the only way problems can be tackled?
- What would a truly Christian “alternative society” look like?
- What might God want us to see that we’ve never truly seen before? (Justin Welby). Will we know when God is directing our attention to something new?
- Consider the groups, communities and institutions of which you are a member. How do they see the world? In what way has their vision been affected by Mammon? (Justin Welby). It seems fairly safe to assume that these bodies have all been affected by Mammon. Should we challenge them and attempt to correct their view of the world? How might we do so?
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.
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.
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.
Worry 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