Sunday, 28 August 2011

Beware rose tinted spectacles - Solomon and the wisdom of leadership

Mission Rescue was the theme of our Holiday Club as we told the story of Moses and the Exodus. It has been great fun. We are all special agents. And some of us had a wail of a time.

Mary was M … or was it N? Yvonne was Miss PennyMoney and as for Robert and me – I was Agent X and Robert Agent Y. Don’t ask me why! Ask Robert! He was the script writer and it was a great script too.

But what about costume? Robert dressed in black … and I had my white suit, and the one thing no self-respecting secret agent can go without. A pair of dark glasses.

They were prescription glasses I had fifteen years ago – and I found it very tricky reading the script Robert had so carefully prepared.

I wonder how many people have prescription sun-glasses. I have optted for the cheaper clip-ons in recent years!

Do you wear sunglasses?

I guess not all of us do.

I have a feeling, however, that not a few of us have got out our Rose Tinted spectacles in the last three or four weeks.

Exams – things aren’t what they used to be … if only we could return to the time when exams really were exams

The financial crisis – things aren’t what they used to be if only we could get back to the time when all was well

Rioting on the streets – things aren’t what they used to be – if only we could get back to the time when all was well in our big cities

Libya, the Middle East – things aren’t what they used to be – if only we could get to things the way they were.

We are not the first generation to get out our rose tinted spectacles when we look back and long for a golden age not all that long ago.

The problem is – we kid ourselves about some golden age.

If our response is about returning to that golden age of our imagination we are barking up the wrong tree.

The problems that have reared their ugly head are in many ways not new problems. They are the problems that every generation has to grapple with.

The task is not to go back to some golden age of our imagination. It is to make an appropriate response in the here and now to the problems that confront us.

I believe that there are great insights for us to gain not only in what that response should be from our reading of the Bible, but also into what is appropriate to do in making our response.

It’s fascinating that rose tinted spectacles were worn by many people down through the generations in Old Testament times. In that momentous exodus story we have been telling in the Holiday Club the people wandering in the wilderness, hungry, at their wit’s end looked back with rose-tinted spectacles at the time they were in Egypt. By comparison it was so much safer.

When the hopes and aspirations of the people were dashed, the nation fell apart, Jerusalem was laid waste and the people were in exile they were at it again. They looked back with rose-tinted spectacles at a golden age, imagining that things were fine then.

What is interesting to my mind is that the prophetic historians who brought us Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, responded to that mentality by providing what in their time and with the wherewithal at their disposal was a careful analysis of the history.

Many people looked to the time of David and even more so to the time of Solomon as the great golden age of the People of Israel. The time when the kingdom was united under a fine king.

The prophetic historians de-bunk that reading of the history of the nation.

As David’s death approached the fault line between Judah and the area around Jerusalem and the ten tribes of the north opened up again. The struggle for succession is told in I Kings 1 as one of David’s sons Adonijah has himself anointed king over the ten tribes of the north. It is Nathan the prophet who speaks out and with Bathsheba approaches David who is determined that the second son to David and Bathsheba, Solomon, should be anointed King at his death. So it is, in chapter 2 David instructs Solomon to obey God as he had learned the hard way it was so important to do.

At the death of David Solomon consolidates his reign, pushes the frontiers of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah to their furthest extent, undertakes significant building works in Jerusalem starting with a splendid royal palace, and cements his position by entering into judicious treaties with neighbouring states, not least an alliance he enters into with Egypt by marrying the daughter of the then Pharaoh.

Solomon is renowned for two things more than anything else. And both are accompanied by a significant prayer.

As you read through these chapters of I kings and imagine the people telling the story as they were struggling to make sense of the collapse of their nation at the exile you can hear amens of agreement. Those who looked back with rose-tinted spectacles could see that these two things more than anything really did make this a golden age. And these two things the people must return to.

Interestingly, the analysis stands in the context of the world of today as well.

First of all shortly after his reign as king begins Solomon finds himself at a sacred place called Gibeon and there he has a dream. And in his dream God invites him to ask for anything and his request will be granted.

Solomon pauses for a moment and then he makes his request.

Give your servant an understanding min to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil …” 3:9

Let’s just pause a moment there.

This insight into what it takes to rule and govern is an insight that every generation needs, not least our own.

First to rule is to serve. The greatest king of all is deemed to be a servant. When Jesus speaks of kingdom he speaks of being a servant – it doesn’t go just back to Isaiah it stems also from this notion of what true rule is like. It is servanthood.

Let no one in power forget they are there to serve. Our parliamentarians would do well to remember that in the wake of the expenses scandal. Our financiers and bankers would do well to remember that just before they put in for another bonus and argue that they should pay proportionately far lower taxes than the poorest in our society.

Then as servant leaders they need an understanding mind. I haven’t watched Channel 4 news, though some have said it is worth watching. Listening to Faisal Islam, their Economics spokesman giving his analysis of the financial crisis yesterday morning at Greenbelt yesterday morning was fascinating and disturbing. He suggested that one of the problems is that those in power do not have an understanding of what is going on.

An understanding mind is vital.

And then the ability to discern between good and evil. Wow. Here in this one small verse we have an analysis of what good governance means.

This is what it takes.

AT the end of chapter 4 we read that God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on fhte seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom supassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt … his fame spread throughout the surrounding nations (4:29ff) andHe composed 3000 proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five.

Wow – and in the book of Proverbs we have a collection that is attributed to Solomon. The first chapters map out the alternative between the way of the wise and the way of the foolish – and wisdom and folly are personified interestingly enough as women. And from chapter 10 onwards comes a mass of proberbs.

This is wisdom. In one of the science and religion talks I attended yesterday we heard the director of the Hubble Telescope project in NASA speak of the way she was brought to Christian faith by reading the Bible, starting with Proverbs and its insistence on the need for wisdom.

This is what’s needed!

And the second thing Solomon was renowned for was the building of the Temple. The House of God. Chapters 5 – 10 of I Kings describe the plans, the building, the bringing of the ark to its final resting place and the dedication of the temple. A dwelling place for the name of God – not that the God of heaven and earth could be contained in a house, but his presence touched earth here in this place.

Again this is accompanied by a prayer as Solomon prays God’s blessing upon the Temple and that special place. And then comes the response God makes as God charges Solomon to walk before him with ‘integrity of heart and uprightnes, doing according to all I have commanded you.” 9:4

That’s something else that speaks to every generation. The need to have a place for God – lose that sense of the presence of God and we lose something at our peril. Again, it is an analysis that holds true, I believe for today as well. How important that we put God at the centre of things.

You can hear the people in exile saying their amens. This indeed is the golden age they were hankering after. Looking back with their rose-tinted specitacles they longed to return to that age.

How mistaken they were For 10 and 11 of I Kings come now as the great shock. Solomon, even Solomon, with all that wisdom in that presence of God, is blemished big time.

First comes the visit of the Queen of Sheba. And we remember that there is another book associated with Solomon among the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Song of Songs. It has been spiritualised more than any other book. But at heart it is a celebration of sexuality and the love shared by a man and a woman. Recommended reading by a colleague of mine on your wedding night. It is writing at its most sensuousness, its presence in our Bible a reminder that our faith celebrates sexuality.

But the problem with sexuality is that it gets out of hand and was the making of Solomon’s downfall. AS chapter 11 opens we learn that King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughtrer of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian ….among his wives were seven hundred princesss and three hundred concubines.

That’s quite something. It’s not the multiplicity of wives that shocks those prophetic historians interestingly enough, it was their rejection of the God of Israel and the way Solomon was led away towards other religious practices.

Solomon’s reign ends in chapter 11 as David’s had done with rebellion from those northern tribes, and the beginnings of what was to become a division that was to be in place for the remaining years of the kingdoms of Israel.

A golden age – not at all!

There is no golden age to return to.

It’s interesting that Jesus values the insights of Solomon and his wisdom. He thinks of his own rule in the kingdom as characterised by servanthood. He seeks understanding an ability to discern good from evil … the sermon on the mount outlines what God expects of his generation.

Fascinatingly, Jesus considers that what Herod the Great who in the period leading up to his birth had styled himself King of Israel had on the one hand bought into, if not married into, Roman culture just as Solomon had done. And worse than that Herod the Great and the Herodians had destroyed what the temple stood for turning the intended house of prayer into a den of thieves.

Jesus suggested that he would embody all the temple stood for, and when he was killed and raised again in three days it would be as all that the temple meant – as the place where the name of God dwelled and God’s presence was felt.

Jesus set out in the sermon on the mount what the word of God had said to Solomon – what it takes to walk with integrity and uprightness doing all that God had commanded.

And when he came to the end of that sermon he told a story that is full of allusions to Solomon in all his glory.

As he is inaugurating the Kingdom of God and a new temple experience in his very resurrection body, he lays down exactly the same challenge to walk with integrity and uprighness doing all that he commands.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Who is the wise man of the Old Testament but Solomon who built a house on the rock for God and who set out the choice between the wise and the foolish in that book of Proverbs.

The rain fell, the floods came and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock.

This is powerful stuff.

And this is what we should heed.

These are words for every generation.

It is NOT that we must get our rose-tinted specitacles out and hanker after a golden age.

Each generation has to do its bit.

We need servant leaders with an understanding mind who can discern good and evil, we need a sense of the presence of God in our midst.

And the words, the commands we are to follow are those that Jesus outlines as he goes to the heart of what for him God stands for in the Sermon on the Mount.

That’s the task we have to rise to in our generation.

Learn the lessons of history, by all means. But for heaven’s sake let’s put away our rose tinted spectacles. There is no golden age at some time in the past. Our task is to heaer the words of Jesus and act on them and so be like the wise man who built the house on the rock.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Restorative Justice - David and Bathsheba

It’s happened again!

It happened this morning … and it’s happened again this evening.

Before going away on our holiday I planned today’s services. The Order of Service Sheets would be ready to print. The services planned. One less job to do this week.

I anticipated going away for a quiet couple of weeks and coming back to the tale of end of an uneventful summer.

We have certainly had a wonderful holiday.

But in the middle of it came the news of the rioting in what seemed the length and breadth of England. It was a strange feeling being in Wales, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland watching on the news, reading in the paper of what was happening in England. It came quite close to home when Hackney featured on the news and we found ourselves on the phone to our Phil in Hackney.

Unsettling, disturbing.

One night in the early hours I found myself reflecting on what I might preach, how I might re-write the Highbury News Piece I had already written. It made great sense in the middle of the night. By morning what had made sense seemed not to make such sense.

What right have I to pass comment?

Is it indeed the task of us in the church to pass comment?

I decided not to change things .. and instead I turned to the orders of service that had already been printed. And this morning’s passages seemed to speak right into the situation that we have all witnessed albeit at a distance.

And in a strange way, I found this evening’s passages speaking into the situation as well.

Taking up our reading of the Old Testament once again we find ourselves today into the 2nd book of Samuel. It’s so easy to think of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as the great history books of the Old Testament. But it fascinates me to find they are counted as prophetic books in the Hebrew Scriptures.

When we arrive at the story of David as it unfolds it becomes apparent why they should be deemed prophetic.

Prophets don’t just predict the future. They hardly do that at all.

Prophets in the Old Testament hold the powers that be to account. It is no coincidence that the prophets for the most part are very closely tied into the Kings of Israel. Prophets declare God’s word into an often turbulent and fraught political situation. They speak God’s word into the lives of those in power and make them stop in their tracks and think again about what they are doing.

What David does as he gains power is what so many with power have done through the ages – the power goes to his head.

One of the worst moments in the story is the decision David makes to give his intended victim the letter containing the orders that will result in Uriah’s death. Uriah out of the way David thinks he has set himself up with Bathsheba for he is after all beyond reproach as King.

Then he is confronted with what he has done by Nathan. Interesting isn’t it that once again we find a Prophet confronting the powers that be in the shape of the King by means of a story. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he chose to use stories in order to get his message across about the kingdom of God.

This story is as plain as can be: it is a powerful story of injustice … it is the story of a rich man and a poor man. One lamb is simply the main course of a meal for an unexpected visitor as far as the rich man is concerned. That lamb is all the poor man has. The rich man has no qualms in taking it.

David is enraged. Rightly so.

And Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

That has to be one of those lines in all literature that sends a shiver down the spine.

Then Nathan confronts David with the wrong he has done.

David knows the seriousness of what he has done … and he repents.

Psalm 51 is the Psalm that is linked with this moment in David’s life.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

.The subsequent story of David’s reign is a fascinating one that raises all sorts of issues. When Bathsheba’s son is born, he is sick and dies at a few days. Nathan, David, the prophetic writers writing this narrative interpret that as God’s judgment. That provokes many an atheist thinker today to reject a God who can do that kind of thing. What we have here is an understanding of God that actually contemporaries of these prophetic historians are already calling in question … Ezekiel rejects it out of hand. When Jesus comes to bring all the prophets to fulfilment he is in line with Ezekiel. When he meets the man born blind in John 9 people assume one or other of his parents must have sinned for him to be born that way … but that is a position rejected by Jesus. God is not like that. It is important to hear the conversations that take place within the Bible itself – and sense different ways of understanding God, that then reach their fulfilment in Jesus. How important for us to take our stand with Jesus.

David continues to reign. In some ways his rule goes from strength to strength. In other ways he continues to have immense problems, not least within his own family. His son, Amnon, has an incestuous relationship with his sister Tamar and as a result is killed by another of David’s sons, Absalom. Absalom wins the hearts of the people, causing David to flee from the city he has made his capital, Jerusalem. When Absalom is subsequently killed in battle contrary to David’s explicit orders to spare his son, it provokes one of the most heartfelt cries of bereavement captured so powerfully in the words of the Authorised Version.

“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

And as for the second son born to David and Bathsheba we will learn more of him next week, his name is Solomon.

The strand of this story that struck me so forcibly as I came to prepare my sermon for this Sunday in the wake of all that has happened while we have been away was the second chance that David was given.

He is confronted with the wrong he has done, brought to see the significance of that wrong, challenged to change round,, and then given the opportunity to shape things all over again.

This is a strand that finds its fulfilment in Jesus. When Jesus is brought face to face with the woman caught in adultery he writes with his finger on the ground. The men bent on the execution by stoning of the women keep questioning him … what do you say? The Bible is absolutely clear in the Law – that such women are to be stoned.

They keep questioning. The Bible says … what do you say?

He keeps writing in the sand.

Then he straightened himself up and said to them, “let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And once again hebent down and wrote on the ground.

When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders, and jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She said, “no one.”

And Jesus said, “neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.”

Jesus gives the opportunity to start all over again … and put things together.

One particular word caught my attention in that wonderful prayer that makes up Psalm 51.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

It is the word ‘restore’.

It’s a word that could have cropped up much more in the last couple of weeks.

In the wake of the crimes that have been committed in the rioting, justice is called for.

But what kind of justice?

Not a lot has been heard from politicians or for that matter from the courts of restorative justice.

Coming to these passages quite unexpectedly in the wake of what has happened. I find myself challenged by these stories.

I fear that calls for lengthy prison sentences, the removal of all income from a whole family, and eviction on to the streets smacks of a retributive justice that will be counter productive and exacerbate the situation.

Restorative justice would be no soft option. It would confront the perpretators with the consequences of what they have done, it would set up a context in which they could meet the people whose lives they have ruined and see what has resulted from their actions, they would then have to play their part in putting things together again. And the purpose of it all is to change those people. To restore them.

Editor of Youth work magazine and himself a church youth worker, Martin Saunders wrote this of Pip Wilson, a writer on youth work whose thinking and books have played a significant part in youth work for a long, long time, not least in our own Hy-Tec.

“One of the greatest youth workers I know (and there are many), the sixtysomething Pip Wilson, has given his whole life to the inner-city teenagers we might term "hardest to reach". Last week I saw a tweet from him. "You may not like this," it read. "I love these kids #LondonRiots. I don't love their behaviour but I LOVE THEM." It was a wonderful illustration of the difference behind faith-based youth work. Pip sees these young people not as problems in need of a solution, but as people in need of identity, grace, love.”

[Face to Faith, the Guardian, 13th August 2011]

That, more than anything is what we learn of these stories from the Bible today. David and the woman Jesus met were not problems in need of a solution, but people in need of identify, grace, love.