Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Thunder in the desert


Thunder in the desert
Change your life. God's kingdom is here.

Thirty years have passed. Thirty cold winters and harsh summers lived through. Matthew pans the camera of our imagination across a new epic scene. Crowds have streamed from Jerusalem, Judea and the surrounding countryside to a river in the desert. They have come to hear a simple and austere preacher, John, known as the Baptiser. He has burst on to the scene and is calling on all who come to hear him to change their lives and be baptised as a preparation for God’s kingdom – the new Promised Land, we might call it; a land without borders or geographic landmarks and boundaries (hence the Desert), but rather a way of life whose centre of gravity is a person not a place.
What are we to make of this abrupt announcement? Within a few short verses the reader has been transported from the story of a refugee family to the wild claims of an unknown prophet and outsider of the religious establishment; a prophet who clothes himself in camel hair and wears the mantle of Isaiah. His blunt preaching gains popularity: ‘Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.’ It also gains notoriety. And Matthew more than hints that there are already enemies of this kingdom who have shown up ‘for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing.’[1]

They are the Pharisees and Sadducees. They get the rough edge of his tongue. He brands them snakes. He will not pour water over them because he judges that their change of life is only skin-deep.

Even as he baptizes and berates, John can sense the pull of a powerful new centre of gravity approaching. It is as if the magnetic force of Jesus is already turning the compass needle of John’s heart towards the one who was worshipped as a babe, rescued from slaughter and hidden away in Galilee until now.

And yet it is the Holy Spirit who John first talks about, not the Son of God. Already John knows that this energy or life-force that has a powerful magnetic attraction will line up the compass needles of myriad hearts and point them to the Beloved One. Already John knows that this Holy Spirit will prepare hearts and minds to receive the Beloved One. The Holy Spirit is the ‘go-between God’ in the story Matthew tells. In Chapter 1, the Holy Spirit has been the go-between God for Mary, the one who ‘overshadowed’ her. And here, at the point of Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit appears like a dove coming down from heavens and landing on Jesus.

And so, after all the build-up, Jesus is announced as the one who is ‘marked by God’s love, the delight of my life’. He is the Beloved – not because of anything he has yet done or signified or achieved. He is wholly loved and accepted. He is the model of how we, too, are created for God’s complete acceptance and delight, marked by love. Thunder in the desert leads to a deluge of endless grace.

[1] Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase in The Message

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

God gives gifts even as we sleep

God gives gifts even as we sleep

No crib. No angel host. No songs of joy (of angels or Mary). No fast-running shepherds to see and tell good news. Matthew does not pay any great attention to the domestic drama of Jesus’ birth lavished upon us lovingly by Luke – how different our Christmas story would be if we only had Matthew. Instead his is an epic story of visionaries from the East and a bloodthirsty tyrant who kills babes and children to hold on to power. It is a story of a refugee family on the run from fear and oppression. It is the story of strange messages in the night – of dreams which save a family and some scholars from certain slaughter. It is a story to wake us up! But it is also a story of what God can do and is powerless to prevent, in the dark.

Three times in this second chapter, sleepers wake up with a life-saving night-time dream directing their steps to safety and to life. The first occasion is after the wise sky-watchers have bowed down and worshiped the child-king Jesus. Having followed a night star all the way to Bethlehem, a dream by night directs the scholars home, safely avoiding Herod.

It is in the night time that God speaks more clearly than ever to Joseph, telling them to run. It is under the cover of darkness that the vulnerable family flee to Egypt. And darkness then spreads across Bethlehem as Herod’s soldiers wipe out a generation of her children. And again, it is through the dream world of Joseph that the message once more comes that it is safe to return home, but this time to Nazareth

Here is the advent theme of ‘Wake up’! Wake up – this is a real world where dictatorial tyrants hold onto power at all costs and think nothing of slaughtering their own to keep in control. Wake up! This is real world where families flee to lands of safety away from oppressors. Wake up!  This is a real world where dreams from God break in and bring life. In the face of grim realities in this passing world, salvation springs from the heavenly kingdom of profound hopes and dreams.

There is a lovely prayer in the Anglican church of New Zealand’s service of Night Prayer which goes like this:

The angels of God guard us through the night,
and quieten the powers of darkness.
The Spirit of God be our guide
to lead us to peace and to glory.

It is but lost labour that we haste to rise up early, 
and so late take rest, and eat the bread of anxiety. 
For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Hopes and dreams

Joseph's dream

Hopes and dreams

Fourteen generations. Between Abraham, David, the Babylonian Exile and Jesus; this number is significant. It signifies blessing and perfection. In the earthiness of it all is the holy (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob). In the tragedy and sorrow there is yet joy (Uriah and Bathsheba and David; the ransomed of the Lord are redeemed, the returning exiles).

And into the mystery of this long-enduring salvation plan, enter Joseph and Mary and an internal drama of doubt, despair, loyalty, faithfulness and obedience to an inner prompting in the dark recesses of the dream-world of night. A fiancĂ©e tells her husband-to-be that she is pregnant. We don’t hear her voice. We just are plunged into his turmoil. What to do? He plans to do all he can to protect Mary from scandal and gossip. He plans to ‘quietly’ do things to break the engagement while, somehow, sheltering Mary from becoming an outcast in her home, her village, her family. This much we know. He has made up his mind.

Then he sleeps on it. And in his dream, the first of four key dreams for this Joseph, we learn that God has a different message, a different way forward. Joseph had resolved to do things quietly – not in a rage or out of concern for his own honour.

And so, out of a very human domestic drama springs the salvation plan for the whole world. Out of the dream-world of a worried man springs hope for the nations. Out of the silence of the night comes the earth-shattering message – marry Mary for she is the mother of God.

The Holy Spirit brings hope. The Holy Spirit gives birth to hope. The Holy Spirit is the go-between God, who links heaven and earth. The Holy Spirit makes sense out of turmoil. God with us.