Sunday, 25 March 2012

The story of Ruth ... a fresh perspective from Malawi

Since preparing this evening’s sermon on Friday evening much has happened.

So much, that the sermon I preached was quite different from the sermon I prepared.

Last Sunday I found I could not cover the wonderful story of Ruth in one evening … and so I left the story on a cliff-hanger of an ending at the end of chapter 1 wondering what kind of a reception Ruth, the Moabite widow would have when she arrived with the widowed Naomi back in Bethlehem.

I intended to tell the remainder of the story, focusing a number of things as you will see by looking below at the script I prepared on Friday evening.

  • The provision made for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the family at harvest in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 24 is carried out in the story and models for us a care for the pooer, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner today.
  • The image of Boaz as a ‘kinsman-redeemer’, a ‘go-el’ who is the family member who will ensure that a widow or indeed others who are facing oppression and are very vulnerable will be given a new lease of life, is a wonderful image to have in mind as Easter approaches and we think of Christ as ‘redeemer’.
  • Ruth’s association in the Jewish liturgical calendar with the festival of Pentecost, the spring harvest festival, prompted reflections on the way the Spirit’s coming is to people of all nationalities in Acts 2 and that chapter culminates in the believers sharing everything together.   As we are given a new lease of life by Christ the redeemer, whoever we may be, so that new life is sealed by the Spirit’s presence deep within.

I finished my preparation and watched theBBC 2 progamme, Reverse Missionaries.  A century and a half ago David Livingstone had gone from Blantyre in Scotland to central Africa.  By now we think very little of Livingstone, but in those central countries of Africa he is greatly honoured, not least in Malawi, where 80% of the population are Christian.  The programme makers arranged for Pastor John to come from Blantyre in Malawi to Blantyre in Scotland and spend a fortnight with our Congregational Federation church there. IT was a church Felicity had visited in her year as President of the Congregational Federation.

What he saw of our secular society saddened him and moved him to tears.  It was moving then to see how he took a leaf our of David Livingstone’s book and went along with the culture in order to seek to share the good news of the Christian faith over here.

It was a powerful, challenging, humbling programme.

Not least because this is a weekend when we have been marking our partnership through the Congregational Federation with churches in Malawi.

On Saturday a group of us from church went to our Area Assembly at Stapleton Road Church in Bristol where we were joined by people from our area who had joined others from CF churches to visit some of our partner churches in Malawi.

This morning we had a parade service and welcomed Candi, her husband Andrew and their family to Highbury.  Candi had been to Malawi and shared her experience.

Only recently becoming a Christian and joining church Candi had been immensely moved by what she experienced in Malawi.  With everyone else in the group she went expecting to give and came back realising she had received so much more.

After the service I asked Candi to share some of her thoughts for our evening congregation.

At our Parade Service we looked forward to developing more links with Malawi by the time of  our next Parade when we hope to be joined by members of the Malawi Olympic Team.  Thanks to links the University of Gloucestershire have built up in the last three or four years Gloucestershire is hosting the Malawi team for the Olympics.

This afternoon I turned to my final preparations for this evening’s service.  I turned to two special commentaries I have.

About ten years ago Goodwin Zainga from the Churches of Christ in Malawi had studied with us on our course.  As he left with Gloria and his family to return to Malawi we exchanged copies of theAfrican Bible.  My copy bears a lovely inscription from Goodwin.

It was one of those special moments in preparing worship when everything comes together in a way that simply hadn’t been planned, and yet has something of God in it.

The commentary on  Ruth had been written by Isabel Apawo Phiri.  A Malawian, she had a B.Ed. from Chancellor College, University of Malawi, MA in Religious Education from Lancaster University, England, a PhD from the University of Capet town South Africa.  A former lecturer at the universities of Malawi and Namibia, she is currently Head of the School of Religion and Theology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal,  South Africa and Co-ordinator of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians.  She had not only written the commentary on Ruth but also helped to edit the Africa Bible Commentary.

It was wonderful reading her commentary.

She splices her commentary with wonderful Malawian proverbs in Chewa, her language.

“In order to see a story in its context, it is important to consider whey it was written.  This truth is enshrined in the saying umanena chatsitasa dzaye kuti njobvu ithyoke nyanga (Chewa Malawi – ‘You have to mention what caused the fruit to fall and break the elephant’s tusk’”

There are wonderful, insightful proverbs.

But what caught my eye were the emphases Isabel, a woman, a Malawian, an African, had in her commentary.  They challenge us in this country too.

In the commentary there are two panels focusing on key themes in Ruth.

The first is on Refugees.  It addresses the refugee crisis in Africa and challenges churches not only to give a cup of cold water but also to enable refugees to fend for themselves.  It also challenges churches to address the causes of the refugee problems.  Above all it appeals for that ‘love and acceptance of foreigner’ in the story of Ruth to be taken seriously by churches today.

We all hailed Joanna Lumley’s campaign to give Ghurka soldiers and their family their due reward for serving in the British armed servies.  It is a remarkable quirk of British empire history that Ghurkas have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and still are a key part of our British army and to our shame that until that campaign they had little reward.

But this week we read that Aldershot have had an influx of 10,000 Ghurka peoples and family members.  I recalled the way because of another quirk of British empire history the Asians who had been taken from India and Asia to Uganda to become key business people had been expelled by Idi Amin and found a home in Leicester.  I recalled my home city of Leicester’s tradition of welcoming refugee populations over more than a century from Europe and now from one time Empire.  And the way they had succeeded in creating a society that keeps people together.

What is our attitude to the foreigner?  May it be our prayer that Aldershot can learn from that kind of experience and have the support they need.

How much we have to receive from those insights from Malawi.

The other box focuses on widow inheritance.  I had been going to reflect on the wonderful way Boaz was the ‘kinsman-redeemer’ who looked after  Ruth.  But Isabel Phiri’s commentary and that additional panel, made me see the text differently.

Ruth is exposed to potential abuse by the young men of the village.  In Africa the custom of a male member of the family marrying a widow is widespread but open to all sorts of abuse leading to massive hurt to women.

Reading the commentary notes there is a heartfelt plea for a different approach to the care of widows and a rejection of the abuse of women.

And because of what happened this weekend that, for me, was not something simply for Malawi with its problems with the abuse of women and the often related epidemic of HIV.

On Saturday evening I had found myself at a commissioning service for Street Pastors.  What a shame our Sue Cole was unable to go having gone down with shingles!  Very much for our prayers!

The Chief Constable, Tony Melville, spoke and commended Street Pastors.  He was open about his Christian commitment, but clear that his support for Street Pastors was a support that was there from the Police in their own right.  It was great to see how open he was about his Christian faith, quoting a wonderful passage in Galatians where we are enjoined not to give up on doing good but to keep on doing good.  Great to hear him pray.

But then he spoke of some of the needs of Cheltenham that many are not aware of and of one particular problem that has happened here over the years.  That has to do with prostitution, sex trafficking and the sex trade.  Maybe it was no coincidence that we were hard on the heels of Race Week.

It came home to me that Isabel’s reflections on Ruth speak as much to us as they do to people in Africa and Malawi.

How wonderful to have received so much and so many insights into the story of Ruth from the people of Malawi.

That was something I had not expected when I originally prepared my sermon notes!

How wonderful that through all the words of Candi and those who visited Malawi, through all the words of that Afican Bible Commentary and through all the words of the Book of Ruth there is a challenging Word of God for us to heed and act on.

And how great that there is a wonderful word of Grace in the love Ruth found with Naomi and with Boaz.

And here are my original notes that were in the event put to one side.  I share them as my eye had fallen on some lovely phrases in the Book of Ruth that I don’t want to lose sight of!

Ruth and Naomi came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Maybe that’s why in Jewish tradition for 1600 years Ruth has been read at the first of the Jewish harvest festivals, the festival of weeks, the festival of Pentecost.

It’s fascinating to see what happens if you read the Book of Ruth against the backdrop of that festival for us as Christian readers.

It tells us something about harvest and what harvest is all about.  But it tells us more about the Spirit and the place of the Spirit in our lives too.

The wonderful story teller responsible for this book now introduces to someone very important …

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.

But the action of the story turns back to Ruth and to Naomi.  We are left in no doubt for the significance of this story Ruth’s identity and family background is significant.

And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain,

We saw last week how Ruth was a woman of courage and determination.  That courage and determination is evident straight away.  It is Ruth who takes the initiative.  She doesn’t wait for the older woman to sort her out.  She acts.  And she acts in a particular way.

She wants to go to the field and glean among the ears of corn.

My Bible refers to two passages that are the kind of passages we often read at harvest time from Leviticus 19:9,10 and Deuteronomy 24:19-22.  On each occasion at the harvest provision is made for widows and for foreigners.  Express instruction is given that gleanings should be left for the widow and for the foreigner.

Ruth is both a widow and a foreigner.

She is not al passive waiting for someone to do something for her.  She is active in doing something – but the system gives her something she can do to feed herself and look after herself.

This is one of those things that is right to the fore in our celebration of harvest.  It is an occasion when we remember those in need.  Those left on their own and vulnerable.  And the foreigner in the midst.  A society can be measured by the concern it shows to its most vulnerable members and to those who are foreigners.

How we cope with ‘the foreigner’ – the welcome, the need for proper provision.  It’s become an issue this week.  It’s a quirk of our history that among the service people who serve this country most faithfully even now in Afghanistan are the Ghurkas.  It is a shame in this country the lack of provision and respect we have given to those particular ex servicement.  That was rectified a couple of years ago thanks to the campaigning of Joanna Lumley.  And now we are faced with 10,000 Ghurka families in Aldershot.  This is a big issue.  How do we respond – a lot has been spoken of the covenant there is with service men and women who give their lives for this country – and now too for the Ghurkas.  Difficult – a proper response.

I recall when Idi Amin’s Uganda demanded that the Indian business men who had been brought across from India in the days of empire to play key roles in the commerce of Uganda and given British citizenship came to Leicester – an influx in the order of many thousands.  Special school – a welcome in a city that has welcomed refugee populations down through the years.  Difficult issues.

But for a woman alone, and especially a foreign woman alone there is grave danger that she be ‘taken advantage of’ by the young men of the village.  Caution is called for.

Boaz arrives with a lovely greeting

He said to the reapers, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you.’ 

 Boaz notices Ruth, she is introduced as the Moabite woman who came with Naomi and as the one who had been gleaning among the sheaves

and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.’

Boaz is concerned for her well being and arranges for her to keep close to the young women in his field.

Ruth is overcome – and what so moves her is the very attitude that we have been noticing a moment or two ago …

‘Why have I found favour in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’ 

Boaz tells her how he has noticed the care Ruth has taken of Naomi – and he prays for a rich blessing from the God of Israel under whose wings you have come for refuge.

Wonderful image of God as the one under whose wings we come for refuge.  This is one of those wonderful images for God that is claimed by Jesus as he laments over Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

There is something very special about Boaz.  Ruth acknowledges it … in wonderful words of commendation.

you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, even though I am not one of your servants.

You have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant …

How vital it is to comfort and speak kindly.

Then comes a special moment when Boaz invites Ruth to share with him in the closest of ways …

At mealtime Boaz said to her, ‘Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 

All sorts of resonances there in the story of Jesus – a relationship is growing between Boaz and Ruth that is going to be very special.  It is moving – it is a very powerful.  And as that relationship is growing so it is sealed in a meal, the sharing of grain and the sharing of sour wine.

The relationship sealed between Christ and his people is sealed in bread and wine – there is some left over.  Echoes in the feeding of the 5000.

Is there a picture here of the close relationship between Christ and his people.  Church has been seen as the bride of Christ.  As Ruth is to become the bride of Boaz.

But that is to jump ahead in the story.

At 3:17 is the start of a long story that plays with ancient customs we catch a glimpse of.

When Naomi gets to hear of Boaz’s interest in Ruth and this growing relationship she says to her daughter in law,

‘The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.’ 

The word ‘nearest kin’ is an interesting one.  The footnote says that could be translated ‘one with the right to redeem’.

A woman, in this case Ruth, is left a widow – how is she to be looked after.  In the family one maybe senior member of the family – in this instance the Naomi – Elimelech family plays the part of the kinsman redeemer.  He can come close to the widow, take her as his bride – and so as it were redeem the situation, free her from the poverty she would otherwise be in and give her a new lease of life.

Remember that’s what harvest is about.  New lease of life.

There may be another person in that role – and the story builds up with a moment when it seems as if Ruth will not get her man.  Then at the last Boaz becomes her ‘kinsman redeemer’ and she is given a new lease of life.

Boaz and Ruth marry

Boaz acquires land as well and Ruth and Boaz enter into a new life and Ruth, the Moabite woman, is given a new lease of life.

May you have children in Ephratha and bestow a name in Betlehem.

Then at the marriage it is the women who sing praises and in excitement give praise to God … as they address Naomi …

And then it is in the arrival of a son for Ruth and a Grandson for Naomi that wonderful blessing comes.  This has to be the Grandparents’ wonderful verse.

14Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ 1

There is one final kick in the tale …

17The women of the neighbourhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Just in case you didn’t get the point the story teller recaps it.  This is amazing.  Truly amazing.  That Obed is son to Ruth and Boaz and he  becamse the father of Jesse and he became the father of Israel’s greatest King, King David.
18 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, 19Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.
As Easter approaches Messiah will once again be sung.

And that remarkable Aria.

I know that my redeemer liveth.

And our minds will go to Jesus as Redeemer.

But what is redeemer?

The verse is from Job 19.

Somewhere behind the thinking in that phrase is the story of Ruth and of Boaz.  A redeemer, a go-el is one who gives a new lease of life.

As we become part of Christ’s people, bound together with him in the closest of relationships and he is our redeemer.  He is the one who gives us a new lease of life.

Welcome to the foreigner

The one who comforts and speaks kindly.

The kinsman redeemer – who gives us a new lease of life.

Great as it is associated with the festival of Pentecost, the outpouring the Spirit and the new lease of life that comes with the Spirit’s presence.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Proverbs and the ability to cope in the chaos of the world

I like enthusiastic TV presenters.

Kate Humble and Helen Czerski are most certainly enthusiastic.  And pretty knowledgable too.

The latest blockbuster nature cum science series is simply called Orbit.  And it follows Planet Earth for one year as it makes its journey round the sun.  It’s another of those TV documentaries that has a very big ‘wow’ factor.

At one moment they took four cameras ten miles up into the sky in order to get incredible pictures of that thin blue line that is the atmosphere that encircles the globe.  The contraption they used seemed incredibly Heath Robinson!  Four pretty ordinary cameras fastened securely to a box containing a GPS tracking device.  And all suspended from a surprisingly small balloon filled with helium.

They let go the balloon and up it went and we watched as the cameras filmed it all!

The filming went through the atmosphere and beyond into the blackness of a sky where the sun was still shining.  We saw the whole curvature of the earth and the remarkable thin blue line that is our atmosphere against the blackness of the sky beyond.   We looked up and in glorious slow motion saw the balloon eventually burst and the film still rolled as the camera box plummeted to earth to be collected by the crew in a car with satnav tuned into the GPS tracking device still in its box!!!!   Amazing!  Wow!

Then with the aid of computer generated animations they showed how the way the planet earth spins on a tilted axis as it speeds around the sun affects the currents in the seas and the winds in the atmosphere.  Imagine you are looking from far above the earth and you can see the beautiful patterns that explain the movement of the seas, the surge of the tides and the rush of the winds.  The patterns are simple to understand and beautiful to see and have about them an order that is wonderful.

Seen from a distance and there is a beautiful pattern, an order that makes sense of things that happen.

But down on planet earth, in this location the pattern disappears – it is not possible to predict exactly when the weather will change.  On the ground there seems to be a chaos.

And the problem is we live on the ground.  We live in the middle of the chaos.

It is good to understand the order there is and those wonderful patterns.  Appreciating that order helps you to understand what’s going on on the ground.  But we still have to live in the middle of what not just seems like chaos but actually is chaos.

I think that offers us a wonderful analogy for what’s going on in the Bible.

Reading the five books of the Law, the Torah, is like looking at planet earth from a great, great height.  Those larger-than-life stories about the beginnings of things really do help us to understand the way things are in every age; those true to life stories of the great ancestors of the faith give us a glimpse into patterns of living that develop.  And the story of the Exodus and the laws that are given offer a framework for living life individually and collectively according to that God-given order there is in our world.

Reading the Prophets in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the  Twelve is to see how great prophetic voices speak truth to power and challenge the powers that be to keep to that God given order and model life along the lines of that God-given order.

In Jesus we find the fulfilment of all the law and the prophets and he offers us a profound insight into the God-given order of the world and how we are to live in that world in a way ordered by love to God, love to neighbour, in a wonderful frame of life, death and resurrection.

It’s great to draw the big picture, wonderful to see how that can shape our lives, and an inspiration to live life to the full knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

All of that is very much part of getting the bigger picture and understanding what’s actually going on.  It’s very much like those animations and wonderful pictures in Orbit that enable us to see all the wonderful patterns that show why things are as they are on planet earth.

But.  There’s always a but.

Down on the ground there can be and there is chaos.  Weather that is unpredictable.  Events that are seemingly impossible to make sense of.  And we have to live down on the ground.  In the real world on planet earth as it hurtles around the sun at phenomenal speeds on its Orbit, all the understanding gleaned from that bigger picture stands us in good stead as we live our lives on the ground.  But we still have to struggle.

The first three great books in the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, the Writings are all about what goes on on the ground.  The books of Psalms, Job and Proverbs offer us aids to living in the middle of the chaos.

All that material for personal prayer and collective worship in the Book of Psalms helps in the struggle.  The powerful drama of Job and all those words of wisdom tackle head-on the sheer awfulness of living on the ground where utter chaos prevails and asks some of the biggest questions of all – why is it that the innocent suffer so immensely.  And then there’s the Book of Proverbs.

Full of words of wisdom.

It’s fascinating to see the way this is not a Single Book in the Bible.  Every so often there are headings that show that this is a collection of mini-books as it were.   An anthology.   [Walter Bruegemann in An Introduction to the Old Testament (Westminster, John Knox Press, 2003), 305 quotes Crenshaw’s breakdown of the book …]
  1. The proverbs of Solomon, David’s son, king of Israel (1-9)
  2. the proverbs of Solomon (10:1-22:16)
  3. the sayings of the wise (22:17 – 24:22)
  4. more sayings of wise men (24:23-34)
  5. More proverbs of Solomon transcribed by the men of the Judean king, Hezekiah (chs 25-29)
  6. The sayings of Agur, Jakeh’s son, from Masa (30:1-9
  7. Maternal instructrions to Lemuel, king of Massa (31:1-9)
Two other divisions, 30:10-33 and 31:10-31 lack identification

Different ideas have been put forward as to what these collections were originally for and why they were put together: Bruegemann suggests three contexts that are frequently suggested

  • Family nurture in which children are socialised into a certain ‘world’ by the reiteration of folk sayings
  • Schools where instruction is more formal, though the existence of schools in Israel is itself a problematic question
  • The royal court wherein the sons of the politically well-connected were inducted into the protocols and arts of governance

In all likelihood the making the anthology in the book we have as Proverbs is the work in the post-exilic community of scribes who became important in the emergence of Judaism.

The whole of Proverbs has to do with wisdom: it is filled with words of wisdom.  Indeed, together with Job and Ecclesiastes and elements in other books you can speak of a wisdom literature in the Old Testament.  This is where you encounter words of wisdom.

What is ‘wisdom’?  In one sense it really is what it claims to be.  Wise words of age old wisdom that will help you get through day to day in  very confusing, muddling and muddled world.  One of the best definitions of biblical wisdom I have come across is ‘the ability to cope’.

Up against it?  Struggling in the chaos of the world?  Here are some wise words of age old wisdom to get you through.  It will help you cope with life in a very messy world.

The bulk of the book from chapter 10 onwards is made up of two-liners.  They are what they say they are.  Proverbs.  Wonderful Words of Wisdom.  The book fell open for me at chapter 15.  There are some pretty wise words of age old wisdom to help you get through here!

1)  A soft answer turns away wrath
But a harsh word stirs up anger

2  The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge
But the mouths of fools pour out folly

4  A gentle tongue is a tree of life,
   but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.

7 The lips of the wise spread knowledge;
   not so the minds of fools. 

14 The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge,
   but the mouths of fools feed on folly.

22 Without counsel, plans go wrong,
   but with many advisers they succeed. 

Mind you, these words were written for a particular time and a particular place.  You have to be careful … it won’t be long in reading these proverbs that you will find ones that puzzle, ones that don’t make sense.  Ones that have been superseded by other things.

And of course, as Christians reading the Scriptures we need to bear in mind the teachings of Christ and read through his eyes.  For he has brought to fulfilment the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

What’s fascinating as you read Jesus is that he is very much a wisdom teacher.  Lots of the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout his teaching are pithy two liners, filled with age-old wisdom.  The Beatitudes leap off the page as words of age-old wisdom …

Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness
For they will be filled

And then later in the sermon on the mount …

You are the light of the world
A city set on a hill cannot be hid

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven

The eye is the lamp of the body

No one can serve two masters:
You cannot serve God and wealth

Do not worry about tomorrow
For tomorrow will being worries of its own
Today’s trouble is enough for today.

It is not that Jesus says, follow to the letter each one of those Proverbs of old.  Rather, he takes the spirit of those Proverbs and shares ones that as far as he is concerned are for all his followers.

This is practical, everyday, life for getting by in a world that is often difficult to make sense of.

The book of Proverbs begins in a wonderful way which comes as something of a surprise.  It presents us with two women – who beckon us enticingly.  One is the foolish woman, Folly;   and the other is the wise woman, Wisdom.

Making sense of life in the midst of its chaos, we not only have words of age-old wisdom to guide us, but we also need to realise there is a choice before us.  The word of the way of wisdom or the word of the way of folly.

It’s fascinating how at the climax to the Sermon on the Mount Jesus echoes that set of choices.  He lays out three choices.  There’s the narrow gate that leads to Christ’s way of wisdom over against the wide, easy road of folly.

There’s the authentic prophetic voice articulated by Christ and borne out in the fruits of those who speak it and there’s the voice of the false prophets who come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. 

And then that most wonderful of choices that so echoes Proverbs – if as throughout the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord … then for us as Christians the key is to hear Christ’s words of wisdom and act on them – for then we will be like the wise man who built his house on the rock.  Woe betide the one who hears those words and takes no notice of them for they will be like the foolish man who builds his house on the rock.

Coming back to that analogy – there’s a big picture that makes sense of Planet Earth in those beautiful patterns seen from a distance.  But down on the ground it’s chaos.

The thing is, however, that to get through the chaos it’s important that the little decisions we make are in accordance as far as possible with the patterns in that bigger picture.  The big picture and all its patterns enables people to predict when the next Severn Bore will be.  But precisely how big and how strong is unpredictable  Be in the wrong place on the bank of the river as the bore rushes in and you will be swept away!

And that’s the most profound of all the insights in the book of Proverbs.  And it is there in that 8th chapter of Proverbs.  The woman Wisdom has been speaking words of wisdom.  But then she speaks of her part, the word of wisdom’s part in the whole creation.

The Lord created me, the word of wisdom, at the beginning of his work
The first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago, I was set up,
At the first, before the beginning of the earth …

The conviction there is that the ordinary everyday words of wisdom are  effective, and really do help us cope with the messiness of the world, really do help us to live day by day through its chaos, because Wisdom’s Words touch something that is part of the bigger picture.  Wisdom’s Word is in accord with the bigger picture of God’s ordering of creation itself.

And that’s the point at which Christ really is seen in the Gospels as the fulfilment of this Wisdom as much as he is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.  His words truly are words of Wisdom to be heeded and acted on.  He is the Word of Wisdom because his words, his Word, is part of the bigger picture of God’s ordering of creation itself.

John 1 is an exact echo of Proverbs 8

In the beginning was the Word of Wisdom And the Word of Wisdom was with God and the Word of Wisdom was God.
This Word of Wisdom became flesh and dwelled among us
And we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only son of the Father.

Finding it difficult to cope?  Impossible to get by in a worrying world of chaos and seeming meaninglessness.

Hear again Christ’s words of wisdom and act upon them.  For this is nothing less than the wisdom of God’s creation.

This is Wisdom indeed, a wisdom we would do well to heed.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Living with unanswered questions - Job's story

It’s not a modern problem.

It is an age-old problem.

It is a problem Jesus was all too aware of.

And it was something Jesus DID NOT ACCEPT!

Devout Jewish people who had sat at the feet of Jesus for some considerable time, the disciples GOT IT WRONG!

The story is told in John chapter 9.

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ 

The disciples look at someone who is blind from birth and they draw the conclusion that either he or his parents must have done something wrong in the sight of God for such a thing to have happened, either he or his parents must have sinned.

What Jesus says in reply is absolutely categorical.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Tragically, through the thirty-five years of my pastoral ministry I have repeatedly met with people who have gone down with some kind of illness and they have linked what’s happened to them to what they must have done in the past.  Worse still, over all those years I have come across parents when faced with the illness of a child whatever form that illness takes who jump to the conclusion – they must have done something wrong.

So and so is suffering – therefore they or their parents must have sinned.

The guilt people suffer from as a result of that insight is immense and deeply troubling.

And it is what Jesus categorically rejects.

Why should it be such a strongly held idea among people who are often deeply devout Christian people.

I have a feeling they have fallen into the very trap the disciples fell into.

And it has to do with the way you read your Bible.

As we have read through the Torah, the books of the Law, and the books of the Prophets we have encountered a principle time and again.  It is powerfully enunciated as the Torah comes to a close in the Book of Deuteronomy and it becomes a recurring refrain throughout the former prophets of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and is there implicitly in so many of the latter prophets.

Obey God and things will go well for the people of God
Disobey God and things will go badly.

As those propohetic historians sat in exile in Babylon and mulled over what had gone wrong for their people and what had landed them in this mess, this principle emerged from their study of the story of their people.

As a general principle it helps in seeing where the nation and its rulers have gone wrong.  It serves as a prompt to get people to turn once again to  God.

There is a danger in that principle, however.

There is a temptation to apply the general principle backwards in specific cases in the life of individuals.

Illness or untold suffering comes upon an individual, everything seems to be going wrong in their lives.  They must have sinned.

The remedy is gross – but all too readily applied – and occasionally I have heard a well-meaning but grossly hurtful Christian believer draw the conclusion – therefore if you repent of your sins and turn to God once again all will be well.

The disciples buy into that way of reading the Scriptures.

In saying ‘neither this man nor his parents sinned’ Jesus categorically rejects that way of reading the Scriptures.

And in doing that Jesus is being true to the Scriptures in a very Jewish way.

Notice how the disciples address Jesus in asking their question.  “Rabbi, who sinned …?”

The Rabbinic way of teaching involves asking questions.  A Jewish commentator on the radio only a couple of days ago made the quip, ask a Jew a question and they will reply with two more questions!

And Jewish rabbinic teaching asks questions of the Scripture.  The Scripitures Jesus was so steeped in, the Hebrew Scriptures we think of as the Old Testament are written by many different voices over many, many centuries.  Within those Scriptures we need to listen out for conversations and dialogues that go on.

Nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to this burning issue in the Book of Job.

The Book of Job is the nearest you get to a full scale drama in the Bible.  Having helped write a musical on the life of St Paul, A Brand New Man, and the Passion Play, the next dramatic production that I sketched out in Open the Book sessions a few years ago is a drama based on the book of Job.  It’s contemporary with the arrival of Greek drama – and it has much the same kind of feel.

The first couple of chapters are as it were the prologue that set the scene in a larger-than-life story that I would present almost in vaudeville fashion.

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 

While reading the whole of the Book of Job you must never lose sight of that verse.  That’s the whole point of the book.  Job is innocent, blameless, upright, God-fearing in every way.  There is not an ounce of evil in him.  A happy family man with unimaginably large numbers of livestock

this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

The action shifts to the heavenly realm where God is confronted by the Satan Figure – this scene gives rise to a rich vein of thinking about God, the nature of Satan, do different from our western almost mediaeval pictures of ‘the devil’.  But play it for fun, don’t ask too many questions – because the purpose of this is simply to set the scene.

Suffice it to say, testing times come upon Job.  Immensely testing times.  He loses his wealth.  He loses his home.  He loses his family.  He loses his health.  But in the face of it all he holds the faith.  His wife longs for him to curse God and die.  He refuses.  And the final verse of the prologue in Job 2:10 leaves us in no doubt at all.

In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Then it is that the three friends, Job’s comforters, come on the scene.  And my play suddenly becomes dark, and intensely serious.

Then we have the bulk of the book.  It works just like Greek drama.

After a long pause.

Job speaks.

He is in abject despair.

‘Let the day perish on which I was born,
I have no rest; but trouble comes

Eliphaz, the first of the friends responds and the first conversation is under way.  The first conversation happens.  There are, as it were three cycles of conversations and dialogue, three acts.  In each act each friend in turn engages in conversation with Job.

It is a gross over-simplification of those three acts and of Job’s comforters – but basically they articulate the theology of the Torah and the Prophets, of Deuteronomy and of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.  It is the very theology that has such a grip on the disciples in that conversation with Jesus.

Their mistake is to apply it backwards.

That orthodox theology of the Law and the Prophets says

Obey God and all will go well.
Disobey God and all will fall apart.

You, Job, are suffering.  You must, therefore, have disobeyed God.  Eliphaz in chapter 4 puts it powerfully.

‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
   Or where were the upright cut off? 
8 As I have seen, those who plough iniquity
   and sow trouble reap the same. 
9 By the breath of God they perish,
   and by the blast of his anger they are consumed. 

Throughout the conversations Job plumbs the depths of despair, is in agonies of anguish – but he searches his soul and is adamant – he is upright, God fearing, he has not sinned.

There are wonderful moments of insight.

Job 19:25ff

O that my words were written down!
   O that they were inscribed in a book! 
O that with an iron pen and with lead
   they were engraved on a rock for ever! 
For I know that my Redeemer
   and that at the last he
 will stand upon the earth; 
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
   then in
 my flesh I shall see God, 
whom I shall see on my side,

   and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

        I know that my redeemer lives – and then in Job 28 a wonderful song to God’s presence in all things that is one of my all-time favourite passages in the Bible celebrating as it does mining and geology and the wonders of nature.

‘Surely there is a mine for silver,
   and a place for gold to be refined. 
Iron is taken out of the earth,
   and copper is smelted from ore. 
Miners put an end to darkness,
   and search out to the farthest bound
   the ore in gloom and deep darkness. 
They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation;
   they are forgotten by travellers,
   they sway suspended, remote from people. 
As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
   but underneath it is turned up as by fire. 
Its stones are the place of sapphires,
   and its dust contains gold. 

‘That path no bird of prey knows,
   and the falcon’s eye has not seen it. 
The proud wild animals have not trodden it;
   the lion has not passed over it. 

‘They put their hand to the flinty rock,
   and overturn mountains by the roots. 
They cut out channels in the rocks,
   and their eyes see every precious thing. 
The sources of the rivers they probe;
   hidden things they bring to light. 

‘But where shall wisdom be found?
   And where is the place of understanding? 
Mortals do not know the way to it,
   and it is not found in the land of the living. 
The deep says, “It is not in me”,
   and the sea says, “It is not with me.” 
It cannot be bought for gold,
   and silver cannot be weighed out as its price. 
It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
   in precious onyx or sapphire. 
Gold and glass cannot equal it,
   nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold. 
No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
   the price of wisdom is above pearls. 
The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
   nor can it be valued in pure gold. 

‘Where then does wisdom come from?
   And where is the place of understanding? 
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
   and concealed from the birds of the air. 
Abaddon and Death say,
   “We have heard a rumour of it with our ears.” 

‘God understands the way to it,
   and he knows its place. 
For he looks to the ends of the earth,
   and sees everything under the heavens. 
When he gave to the wind its weight,
   and apportioned out the waters by measure; 
when he made a decree for the rain,
   and a way for the thunderbolt; 
then he saw it and declared it;
   he established it, and searched it out. 
And he said to humankind,
“Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
   and to depart from evil is understanding.”  
After three sets of questions Job’s comforters depart – and they have brought him not one ounce of comfort.

A fourth friend appears, Elihu and we arrive at the fourth Act.  The arguments are nuanced in beautiful ways but remain essentially the same.

Then it is that Job is left on his own.  And we reach the climax to the play.  Act 5.  Out in the elements Job becomes aware of God.  He encounters God – but God does not resolve any of the theological dilemmas the book has explored.  God plies Job with questions he has no answer for about the wonder of the world and its immensity.  In 38, 39, and 40 Job is brought as it were face to face with the God who is so much greater than anything any human can conceive of.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 
Gird up your loins like a man,
   I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding. 
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it? 
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone 
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 

‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
   when it burst out from the womb?— 
when I made the clouds its garment,
   and thick darkness its swaddling band, 
and prescribed bounds for it,
   and set bars and doors, 
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
   and here shall your proud waves be stopped”? 

It is not in the orthodox theological arguments of those comforters that he has any consolation.  But it is in an encounter with the God who is full of mystery and immensity that Job discovers the possibility that it is not necessary to have all the answers, but possible to live with unanswered questions.

His attempt to ‘understand’ what’s happened and happening to him is to no avail.  What is important is simply to sense the presence of God and put all into God’s hands.

I first encountered the Book of Job in the New English Bible and love that translation of the final moments when Job reaches that point …


Then Job answered the Lord:
I know that thou canst do all things
And that no purpose is beyond thee.
But I have spoken of great things which I have not understood,
Things too wonderful for me to know.
I knew of thee then only by report,
But now I see thee with my own eyes.
Therefore I melt away,
I repent in dust and ashes.

The drama done – there is an epilogue.  You need it in such great drama.  And at the very end in my dramatisation the vaudeville returns as Job is restored, his livestock and family come back to life and he lives happily ever after.

Happy ever after endings don’t by any means work out in the real world.  And that is the point of the Book of Job.

With the book of Job and with Jesus let’s reject the mistaken orthodoxy of those three friends and those disciples.

In its place Jesus offers us his presence.  At his parting he offered his friends, and he offers us another Comforter, even the Spirit of truth who will be with us forever.  And that offer of another comforter was made at his last Supper, as it were the first in that chain of suppers that have been shared by Christian believers down through the centuries, that Lord’s Supper we are about to share.

Here we seek once more that presence of God in Christ that in the face of sometimes untold suffering enables us to live with unanswered questions.