Sunday, 29 January 2012

Obadiah and Joel - dream dreams, see vision ... and prophesy!

I’m not sure whether I was excited by the news or perturbed by it.

Scientists have made a break through in understanding why locusts swarm.  It has to do with levels of nitrogen in their food chain.

Plagues of locusts plague north Africa to this day.  And are among the most destructive forces of nature.  The havoc they wreak is nature red in tooth and claw.

The suggestion in the news report was that scientists think now that by adding nitrogen fertilisers they may be able to reduce or even eliminate swarms of locust.

In one sense that has to be a great cheer.

But in another breath, I wonder.  Are such events in nature part of the world?  Do we tinker with such events at our peril?  And yet who are we to pontificate if people are plagued so destructively by them.

Mention a plague of locusts and those who know their bible stories, not least the bible stories of Sunday school will think of the ten plagues that came upon the Egyptians as Moses pleaded with Pharaoh to ‘let my people go’.

It’s fascinating to see how the themes of the Exodus crop up again and again as the story of the Old Testament unfolds.  Often the prophets pick up on elements of the Exodus story as people again find themselves facing the destructive powers that be of what can all too often be a very cruel world.

Three of the minor prophets who make up the Book of the Twelve are difficult to date.  Jonah, Obadiah and Joel.    What is beyond doubt is that they date from a time when calamity has befallen the people or threatens to come upon the people of Israel.  But which calamitous events these words are set against is difficult to pin down.

Obadiah sees destruction coming upon the enemies of Israel, and is filled with hope at the final triumph of Israel.  In the face of calamitous destruction ‘on Mount Zion there shall be those that escape, and it shall be holy!’

These prophets, like all the rest of the prophetic writings have that rhythm of gathering gloom as the people are confronted with the consequences of their disobedience of God, followed by a glimpse of light as hope dawns with the promise of God’s saving grace to look to.

I guess it is that rhythm that captures my imagination as I read the Old Testament in today’s world.  Ours is a world that at every turn seems to be falling apart – it seems as if there is an unrelenting gloom as one follows the news.  I don’t envy this young generation as they face such an uncertain future, is a refrain I hear more and more frequently in my visiting of all sorts of people.  It is a troubling world.

That sense of gloom is one that is shared by Joel as he contemplates the destructive forces that are let loose in his world.  In a sense it doesn’t matter that it is not possible to pin-point the backdrop against which he is writing.  His words have a timeless feel to them as they speak to any age that has that sense of gathering gloom.

The image he uses is stark.

And it is an image that makes great sense even today in those parts of the world, not least in North Africa plagued by swarming locusts.

 Hear this, O elders,
   give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
   or in the days of your ancestors? 
Tell your children of it,
   and let your children tell their children,
   and their children another generation. 

What the cutting locust left,
   the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
   the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
   the destroying locust has eaten. 
Faced with such destructive forces the challenge of Joel is to wake up, come to your senses, keep watch.

Wake up, you drunkards, and weep;
   and wail, all you wine-drinkers,
over the sweet wine,
   for it is cut off from your mouth. 
For a nation has invaded my land,
   powerful and innumerable;
vines laid waste,

its teeth are lions’ teeth,
   and it has the fangs of a lioness. 
It has laid waste my vines,
   and splintered my fig trees;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
   their branches have turned white. 

Powerful stuff.  Even if you haven’t read Joel recently, I wonder whether you recognize anything here.  Is there a hint of something familiar?  I wonder.

Do you remember on the Road to Emmaus those two followers of Jesus look downcast and sad.  The stranger who joins them ask why.  They stood still, looking sad.  Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?  He asked them, “What things?”  They replied, The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people …”

As far as those two were concerned Jesus was a prophet mighty in deed and word …”

They proceeded to describe everything that had happened to Jesus, culminating in his death and the rumours of his resurrection.

“then Jesus said to them, “Oh how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared.”  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

AS Jesus entered Jerusalem he wept over the city with lament – would that you had known the things that make for peace but you did not.

He gathered his disciples together on the Mount of Olives and he spoke to them of the days of destruction that are going to come upon them before they have died.

He cleanses the temple and speaks of its destruction.

He urges his followers to keep awake and watch.  He speaks woe to the religious leaders of the day.  He even curses a fig tree that is destroyed.

In all those actions there are echoes of Joel.

What Jesus does and in what Jesus says he is in the line of prophets of which Joel is one of the great ones.

The people have to face the consequences of all that they have done and of all that has happened to them.

That day in Emmaus those two recognized in that stranger the risen Jesus. 

For forty days Jesus appears to the disciples at different moments.

Jesus makes it absolutely plain that everything written about him in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.

His followers are to take that very message of repentance and forgiveness of sins and proclaim the name of Jesus to all nations beginning from Jerusalem.

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus said to them.  “And, see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised, so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Stay in Jerusalem they did for ten more days.

Behind closed doors

In prayer.

Until on the fiftieth day it happened.  Hard to put into words.  But they knew that power had come upon them, useen yet very real power, it was like a mighty rushing wind, they were tongues as of fire.

And they tumbled down the steps from that upper room on to the streets of Jersualem and everyone could understand their message no matter the language they spoke.

And then it was Peter who put his finger on it.

He knew that the promise so many of those prophets had spoken of was dawning.  Of all the propets it was the vision of Joel that came to his mind.

No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams. 
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy. 
And I will show portents in the heaven above
   and signs on the earth below,
     blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 
The sun shall be turned to darkness
   and the moon to blood,
     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

This is not just something wonderful for then.

This is what is at the heart of church for us today.

Yes, the world and its troubles is pretty overwhelming, but we have a strength from God to help us live through these days.  Not just to grin and bear it, not just to face the world with gritted teeth.

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh

Let’s claim the power of God’s spirit – we have a strength to give us back-bone.

Then we have a task

Your sons and daughters shall prophesy.

What do prophets do?  They speak truth to power.  They challenge the powers that be with the true way of God.  We are to do exactly what Jesus did – declare the truth of God to the powers that be in our world.  The whole law reduces to two things for Jesus – Love God, love your neighbour.  But interestingly it is in the middle of that last week when he is so doing what Joel had done and echoing Joel’s deeds and words that he puts his finger on what are the weightiest matters of the law – justice and mercy and faith.

Just as the prophets of old did, just as Jesus did, so too must we do – challenge the powers that be to shape what is done in our society according to those principles of love for God, love for neighbour, justice, mercy and faith.  And as we have seen time and time again throughout the prophets that involves good news for the poor, sight for the blind, setting free of those who are oppressed.

That’s why I for one wrote to our MP this week giving my support for the stand taken by the Bishops in the House of Lords, why I went to see Nigel Jones who is our local person in the House of Lords to put over some of the views I have picked up in conversation I have had with people working in the NHS expressing concern.  It is important for us to engage  this is to ‘prophesy’ in the strength of the Spirit of God.

We have to see visions and dream dreams.

It was subversive enough in Joel’s time whenever that was to say that this outpouring of the Spirit would come upon even slaves.  But in Jesus’ day that was dynamite.  Roman society was incredibly hierarchical – the powers that be in Jerusalem under the Herodians went along with that society.  And the Spirit comes upon slaves?  These are the bottom of the pile.  How does that translate into the world of today – who are those at the bottom of the pile in our society.  Who are those demonized in the popular press – that might be a good place to start – and God’s spirit is for them.

This is powerful stuff.  It’s no wonder Peter should find himself in prison within a short while of speaking these words.  No wonder on the anniversary of Christ’s execution he should be taken captive by Herod to be executed just as John the Baptist had been, just as Jesus had been.

Just in case you hadn’t got the point.  Peter repeats it.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy. 

Someone at St Luke’s said to me last week – these are the signs of the times.  Yes, we can see them all around us.  But the pont of what Joel wrote is that they could be seen in his day.  They could be seen in Jesus’s day.  They could be seen now by Peter.  The portents are all there.

The destuctiveness of the Day of the Lord is all around us – and it can be seen in every generation.  It is not that every preceding generation got it wrong, but we are right.  It is that the signs of the time are to be seen in every generation.  And we are to take notice of them.  Change our ways and model what we do on what God wants of us – love God, love neighbour and the weightier matters of the law – justice, mercy, faithfulness.

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

What an interesting word from Joel to finish with.  So easy to think of it simply as a spiritual salvation.  But this is the word used of Jesus when he healed people whose world had fallen apart in physical illness, in illness of the mind.  Saved – healed – made whole.  Put together again.

In a world that feels as if it is falling apart the great thing is that God in Christ by the power of this Holy Spirit keeps restores us and puts us together again when we have fallen apart.  And we have the task of bearing witness to this wonderful power and be in the business of restoring and putting together those who have fallen apart in the world around us as well.

The rest of his speech is dynamite for the powers that be in Jerusalem.

When they executed John the Baptist they thought they had put an end to this troublesome prophet.

Jesus took up the mantle and was a prophet mighty in deed and word.

When they executed Jesus they thought they had put an end to this troublesome prophet.

Now it is not just that Jesus has been raised from the dead – it is that that resurrection is a victory over the principalities and powers that shows that vindicates all that Jesus shared, and now by the power of the Spirit it is let loose in the world and nothing can prevail against it.

And we are part of that movement as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus and in the strength of the Spirit dream our dreams, see our visions and above all else speak truth to power as we by the power of the Spirit continue that prophetic work and prophesy.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Changed by serving - Zechariah's story

This sermon was preached in a united service with friends from St Luke's Church to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian unity.  It draws on readings and a theme put together by friends from the churches of Poland.

I always value slipping into an evening service at the end of a training weekend in Nottingham.  Last Sunday was no exception.  After a full training weekend with a wonderful set of people in Nottingham, I went over to Derby to join Cheryl and Graham for lunch and then go off to see Eric Burton, who had been here in Highbury in the 60’s and 70’s in hospital.  Though quite poorly after his stroke, Eric was on top form and we had a great conversation – great to share with him.  I came into church as the service was beginning and it was great to hear Robert speaking of the partnership we share with St Luke’s and St Micahel’s and hear him giving his greetings.

He explained how they have initiated a youth club at St Michael’s and they will be meeting this evening – they are very much in our prayers as we meet.  In a sense what he shared last Sunday evening goes with today in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as we shared with him this morning at  St Luke’s.

Three things he said in his preaching touched me.  He began and ended with those wonderful words that mean so much to so many, and have resonated with me down through the years.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:  Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.  That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Those words spoke to me – how good to know that we may put our hand into the hand of God … no matter the darkness, that shall be to each one of us better than light and safer than a known way.

He spoke of the importance of prayer, and reflected on the wonderful sessions Carolyn had shared with us at Transformers on the Lord’s Prayer.  How precious that prayer for our lives.

And he spoke of the need for a vision … a vision to share of the future we look to.

As I was listening, I felt as if Robert had set the tone for some thoughts I wanted to take on into this evening’s service and beyond to the next couple of weeks as well.

In these opening weeks of the year Carolyn has prompted us to think about what it means to belong to Highbury, and what is special about our belonging.  She led us in a very gentle, but very thought provoking time at our Church Meeting to start the year thinking of words and phrases that sum up for us what it is that makes Highbury special.  We will be sharing those insights as the year unfolds.

We need to sense as a church family that we can put our hands into the hand of God and he will guide us.

We need to sense as a church family the vital importance of prayer.  This coming week John and Joan Barnes will be celebrating their Diamond Wedding – on Thursday.  John’s in Tewkesbury hospital and will be there.  Joan is in Dowty House.  But they plan to be together for their Wedding Anniversary.  So Joan will go over to John and in the Day room they will celebrate.

Ten years ago I asked them to share with our morning congregation their recipe for marriage and relationships.  I asked each to share again.  Without a hint of a pause John immediately said, No Secrets.  I then went to visit Joan and without a pause she told me exactly what John had just said.  They could have competed in that old quiz show, Mr and Mrs.  But Joan went on to say another couple of things too.  I rely on prayer, she said.  And she spoke of the importance of prayer to her.  And of the way she prayed for me, for my family for us as a church family  I thought that was something very special.  That’s the kind of prayer we value from the likes of Joan … and the kind of prayer we owe them as their Diamond Wedding anniversary approaches this week.

But thirdly we stand in need of a vision.  How vital it is to have a vision.  Without a vision, the Proverb says, the people die.

I was going to turn to Joel and the sons and the pouring out of the spirit on the sons and daughters, on the old men who dream dreams, on the young men who see visions on the male and the female slaves on whom the spirit is poured out.

But then I looked again. And with Robert I had looked at the prayers that have been published for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  I scanned through them and I spotted that for one of the days there’s a reading from Zechariah.

Now as it happens Zechariah was next on my list of the minor prophets to turn to.  Along with Haggai and Malachi Zechariah is one of the three minor prophets I link up with Ezekiel and the return from exile.

Zechariah begins with a challenge to the people to make an about turn and begin all over again.  The prayers for this week of prayer for Christian unity come from Poland and are built on the theme.  We will all be changed.  The prayers invite us to be people prepared to be changed as we put our faith into action.

Zechariah then shares a sequence of eight visions that speak of horsemen and candlesticks, of flying scrolls and olive trees.

Robert invited us to be a people of vision.

One of those visions sticks in my mind from long ago.  It meant a great deal to someone called Amy  Carmichael.  She was a Mother Theresa kind of character who gave her life to a life of selfless service of the most needy in India.  She sustained the incredible work she did by a life of prayer.  In one of those prayers she drew on the vision Zechariah has of four horns and four, as she recalled them carpenters.  As I recall the way she shared the vision she suggested that we each face things that knock us for six.  Those are the four horns.  They can at times come from any direction and every direction.  We are pulled this way and that.  In the face of the things that devastate we must hold on to the other side of Zechariah’s vision.  To each horn there is a carpenter.  For each of the ills that come up on us there is not just an antidote, not just a response, but one who will set things right, a carpenter.

My recollection of Amy Carmichael’s prayer as it has played on me is the thought in prayer that no matter what may befall God has a carpenter ready to make things right, to put things right.  Did not Jesus grow up as the son of a carpenter, is he not the carpenter who will set things right for us.

Zechariah’s visions over he has a wonderful promise he puts into words.  The greatest calamity of all that has befallen the people will be put right.  Jerusalem will be restored.  There’s a wonderful vision that echoes that Isaiah vision that comes in Isaiah 65 – Zechariah sees the streets of the city full of boys and girls playing its streets.  What a wonderful vision of restoration he has.

The people did return.  But there was something missing.  They did not regain their fine independence as a kingdom as they hoped.  They were under the thumb of the Persians, the Greeks, The Egyptians, the Syrians and worst of all the Romans.

By the time of John the Baptist and Jesus the city was in thrall to the Roman power.  And the people longed for freedom.   For one who would deliver them.  Jesus took to heart the climax to Zechariah’s vision for restoration and took it completely to heart as he made his final triumphant approach to the city on of all things a donkey.

He was shaping his kingdom exactly by the words of Zechariah …

We need a vision.  We need to look to a carpenter.  But we look to a new kind of kingdom – and we find it in Christ.  And what is this Jesus like …

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 
 will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth. 

What a wonderful vision.  But the Christ who comes to us comes in humble service to command peace to the nations.  He is not the kind of king the world hankers after who demands subservience from his subjects.  He is a king who came to serve … 
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ 
This day in our prayers for Christian unity we are challenged by the churches of Poland to be prepared to be changed by serving.

If Jesus came not to be served but to serve.  How are we to seek to serve.  How can we serve … maybe in the life of the church, now is the time we invite people to be prepared to put themselves forward to act as Deacon.  I began talking about my visit to Eric, he liked to use the word ‘servant’ to speak of ‘the Deacons’  It is not that we want people to take decisions for us .. it is that we seek people ready to serve God.  Do pray about it – if you may be able to fulfil that calling – do pray for those who may be able to do that work in your prayers.  It is an important part of our church life.

The readings are followed by a reflection that suggest that we shall be open to be changed by serving if we are prepared to have a time of preparation so that we may be ready to be changed.  The reflection is followed by a prayer, the prayer on the order of service sheet.  Let me share the words of the reflection, then let’s say together the words on the order of Service sheet.

Preparation is the thing -
says the painter –
gathering resources,
sizing the task,
planning the job;
            then offering effort,
            using gifts,
giving self:
            decorating canvas or
conservatory -
change comes.

Preparation is the thing –
says the athlete –
scheduling training,
eating well,
warming up;
            then playing hard,
straining sinew,
giving self:
performing on pitch or track –
change comes.

Preparation is the thing –
says the psalmist –
eyes not raised too high,
thoughts not too elevated,
soul calmed and quieted;
            then service in worship,
            giving heart and mind,
            giving self:
praising in cottage or
cathedral –
change comes.


Gracious God,
we gather, united in praise,
longing for heavenly greatness in our
earthly lives:
serving one another in the way of Jesus,
finding the overflowing joy of unity,
and so to scatter, united in

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Faith in public life - Haggai's story

We made Tuesday our Bank Holiday day this week and after a fun morning indoors because of the rain and the winds with Lake we went off to visit Gloucester museum in the afternoon.

It’s ahead of Cheltenham, in having recently been refurbished.  Not having been for quite a while it was good to visit.

It was great to see the way they tell the geological story of  Gloucester’s countryside and the archaeological story of Gloucester’s ancient history.  That part of the exhibition focused on Roman Gloucester at the north western extremity of the Roman empire – there were wonderful artefacts illustrating everyday life, and not a few showcasing the intensely religious nature of Roman life.  What a pity the coin with a Chi Rho on it was not identified as a Christian coin!  Among tombstones and medical instruments is in pride of place a stretch of the actual Roman wall.

The Roman wall, of course, was built towards the end of the first century AD that makes it for all intents and purposes contemporary with the great Roman building work that was going on at the opposite extremity of the Roman empire in Judea on the Easter Frontier.  What struck me as fascinating was the description of the wall itself.  The large blocks were shaped and constructed in a way that was very rare outside of Rome itself and unique in this country.  I looked down at the base of the wall and thought I have seen a wall not unlike that not that long ago and right on the other side of the Roman Empire.

It was the base of the wall of the Roman temple built by Herod.  Same kind of limestone rock.  Same kind of distinctive feel to it.  Much of Herod’s architecture was unique outside of Rome itself.  The wall of his temple was even more special in that many of the rocks were carved with a pattern around the edge.

Looking down at that Roman wall in Gloucester there were the same gaps between the rocks as in the temple wall – now of course at that spot on the Western wall those crevices between the building blocks are stuffed with the prayers of devout Jews.

The Romans were very religious.  The first thing they would build as they made a start on a settlement would be a shrine where the standards of the emperor could be lodged, a focus for their religious worship.  The walls of the city followed afterwards.

Herod was a good Roman.   And in his own way very religious.  The best way to win over the hearts and minds of the Jewish people, he decided, was to set about rebuilding their temple in the middle of Jerusalem.  He made it his priority.   Work started on the temple 16 years and more before the birth of Christ.  It was taking real shape by the time Jesus was born, one of the finest splendours of the whole ancient world by the time Jesus’ ministry began and completed 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

In one sense Herod knew his bible.

When the exile was over and the people returned to Jerusalem they had had a different priority.  Their priority was to rebuild the walls of the city.  How they did that is described in a couple of books that appear in the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Writings, and we will come to in due course, Ezra and Nehemiah.  The priestly Ezra recognised the need once the town walls were built to read the words of the Law – and a public reading was arranged.

But something was neglected.

No attempt was made to re-build the temple.

What incensed Haggai was not just that the temple had been neglected, but that once the walls of the city had been rebuilt the next priority was a lavish life-style lived in the finest of houses that were in the process of arising out of the rubble of the destroyed city.

In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house. Then the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins? 

To make matters worse the people’s sole concern on returning from exile was to line their own pockets.  No sooner have they returned from exile than catastrophe falls – the rains fail, the drought comes, and the harvests simply don’t come.

Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.

What’s gone wrong is the neglect of the temple and all it stands for.  The people must put the temple and that focus on God back at the centre of their lives.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured, says the Lord. You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produces, on human beings and animals, and on all their labours.

The leaders of the people and the people themselves heed the word of the Lord.

So it is the work on the house of the Lord starts.

Haggai’s words are a challenge to every society that turns its back on God and neglects the things of faith that are so important.

Haggai like so many others of the prophets has something to say to our society and to our world.

Much is wrong in our society.

One of the things that is missing is a focus on God at the heart of our society.  That is something we need to seek again.

It’s good to reflect on the large scale needs of society.  But change starts with each one of us, wherever we are.  What is in our  hearts counts.  What is deep within us makes a difference.

That’s a call to faith in our society.

I can hear a big amen to that all around.

But it is at that point that I want to notice something rather different emerging.  It is very tempting to say that what is needed is a revival of the accoutrements of religion.  We need to make sure that church as an institution is at the heart of things.  Woe betide us if we lose bishops from the established church in the House of Lords.  Woe betide us if the County  Council stops saying prayers before its meetings.  Let’s work hard to get the trappings of religion back at the centre of things.

I am not sure that’s the way we should be going.

It’s easy to be religious.  And it is very easy for worldly powers to summon religion to their aid.

Herod the Great had learned a lesson from Haggai.  He rebuilt the temple – and he was going to have an official religion right at the heart of his regime.

The problem was it was a brutal regime.  He aimed to use religion to bolster up his power.

Taking seriously all that John the Baptist had stood for, Jesus was well aware of the Herodion abuse of power and abuse of religioin.  When Jesus saw the temple Herod had rebuilt he was incensed.

This was not the kind of religion that the prophets, Haggai, included, had in mind.

It was not the faith of the prophets, the  God of the Law.

Stop making my father’s house a market place, was his cry as he drove out people selling cattle, sheep, doves in the temple precincts and moneychangers extorting hard-earned cash from the poorest of people.

Many people among the Jews were also incensed.  They were looking for something different.  They wanted some kind of sign.

Jesus offered them a sign.

Listen carefully to what John tells us.

Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

This goes to the heart of what Jesus was about.

Yes, Jesus too wanted God, faith to be at the heart of everyone’s life.  It had to be at the heart of the nation’s life.

But not the God of Herod, not the faith of the Herodions, not the God of this kind of temple.

No, Jesus would embody all that the temple stood for.  It was his presence that was all important.  What was important was not the outward trappings of religion as a means of power, but an inner faith rooted in him, in his words, and in his way of life, an inner faith that would be a means of grace.

So much of Jesus teaching hinges on this fundamental idea that he embodies all the temple stands for.

Haggai goes on to remonstrate with the people for leaving the temple in dishonour.  He urges on them a temple worthy of God’s glory. 

In the second year of King Darius,in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendour, says the Lord of hosts.The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says theLord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

That is exactly what Jesus has on offer.  Listen in those words to the echoes in the teaching of Jesus.  Take courage, take courage, take courage.  My spirit is with you.  Do not fear.  The shaking of the heavens and the earth, the desire of all the nations coming, a house filled with splendour – greater glory.  This is the glory of the presence of Christ with us.

What is needed is not the trappings of religion.  But people in whose hearts the love of God in Christ is alive in word and action, in thought and prayer.  It is not a set of bishops in an established church that will ensure Christ’s presence at the heart of our nation’s life but men and women who serve as MP’s and in the House of Lord’s who live out their faith in Christ in word and action, in thought and prayer.

What is needed in our County Council is not the formality of a set of religious words uttered at the beginning of the meeting.  Let the meeting start with a quiet, a focus on shared responsibilities – what we need is Councillors for whom a living faith in Christ is in their every word and action, in their every thought and prayer who will be thinking their prayers throughout the time of their business meetings.

Let’s put faith at the heart of the nation’s life not by some specious allegiance to the trappings of religion, but by seeking so to share our faith in Christ that people put Christ at the heart of all they do and live out their faith on the streets around us and in the corridors of power.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Ezekiel - People of Influence

As the New Year begins what does our world need?

People of Power.


People of Influence

It’s good to receive occasionally the transcript of a particularly good Thought for the Day from organists Frank or Richard – often ones with some scientific bent.

I pricked my ears up when I heard Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs do his thought for the day this week.  That’s something for Sunday evening, I thought.  And I’ll email the transcript to Frank and Richard.  You can imagine my disappointment when I found the BBC website has been on holiday and won’t be back in operation until next week.  So … no transcript.

Jonathan Sachs was asking who are more important, and indeed who are more needed in the kind of time of crisis that we are facing in today’s world?

Is it People of Power … or People of Influence?

He reflected on the way the Hebrew Scriptures are actually more to do with People of Influence than with People of Power.

A large part of the Hebrew Scriptures are made up with the Prophets – the former prophets whose writings are contained in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and the latter prophets whose writings are contained in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Book of the Twelve.

The Kings were the People of Power and with the exception of David and Solomon and one or two others their names have been forgotten.  The Prophets were the People of Influence – it was their spoken word and their writings that challenged the People of Power and indeed shaped the way they should exercise their power.

Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu were not People of Power.  They were People of Influence.

What is needed in our world of crisis now are people of influence who can use a Prophetic Voice to challenge the People of Power and then shape the way they exercise their power.

It is fascinating that the three great books of Prophetic writing, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel all focus on THE major crisis Israel faced – the destruction of Jerusalem.

 Whereas Jeremiah stayed put in Jerusalem when the Babylonian power destroyed that city and its temple, Ezekiel was among those who were carted off to far away Babylon.

There is almost a madness in Ezekiel’s writing as he sees fantastical visions many of which are profoundly disturbing.  But through it all he speaks out in that challenging way as he looks back on what has gone wrong and brought Israel to this sorry state of affairs, and he seeks to shape the way people in the future will use their power.

As people subsequently returned from exile they could tell that Ezekiel was one of those great People of Influence whose words were worth taking note of.  Indeed the way he sought to shape those who held power became very much the inspiration for Jesus and all he stood for.  I want to identify a number of passages and thoughts that Ezekiel shared that we can see filled out in Jesus and we can see them setting us the agenda we should seek to follow as this New Year unfolds.

First, we must come to terms with individual responsibility.  This is one of the great insights Ezekiel has to share.   Much of the thinking that had gone on before, it is reflected in Exodus 20 in the ten commandments sees that people can be caught up in bad behaviour from one generation to the next.  That is an insight that we must always remember when responding to the needs of other people.  People can be trapped from one generation to the next – often those youngsters with massive behavioural problems that CCP sees in its Education Centre come from family backgrounds that are immensely difficult with intractable problems that seem to go down from one generation to the next.  That may be a helpful observation but there is also a need for individual responsibility – and to recognise that you are responsible for your actions.

The word of the Lord came to me: 2What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.   18

Each person to take responsibility for their own actions.  And each person has the potential to change and be changed.  Ezekiel has a lovely way of putting that at the end of chapter 18

31Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! 

Just as Jeremiah held out the hope of a new covenant, so that thought is echoed by Ezekiel – the people may have experienced calamity as the consequence of all that had gone wrong over many, many years.  But there is a hope they can look to, a covenant relationship with God that will be renewed and restored …

19I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.  11

This has to be one of the most thrilling of all Ezekiel’s visions.  Far away in exile he has that desolate and devastating vision of the valley of dry bones.   37 – Ezekiel prophesies to the bones and they come together.  Then he prophesies to the breath … and the breath of God is breathed into the dry bones and there is new life.  A wonderful vision of restoration.

That will involved the coming together of the fractured, divided kingdoms of Israel – as he takes two sticks and joins them together in front of the people’s very eyes.  So too the people will  be one people.  37:15ff.

This speaks into our world and into our situation at the beginning of the New Year.  The need to recognise responsibility.  The potential for a new start as a new heart, a new spirit, a new breath comes deep within us.  That can be for us.  It can encourage us to work with all people – the capacity for change.  And it gives us grounds for hope collectively as well.

One of the most powerful of Ezekiel’s insights as a Person of Influence is the indictment he makes of the People of Power of many generation.  For him the People of Power were the Kings of the northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom too.

Chapter 34 is a key part of what Ezekiel has to share.

It is interesting that Ezekiel addresses himself as Son of Man.  Which in the NRSV becomes Mortal.  Ben Adam – throughout the whole book of Ezekiel when Ezekiel is addressed.  In 2011 to mark the 400th anniversary of the AV the New International Version was completely revised.  They keep this phrase.

It is not without significance that when Jesus speaks of himself he calls himself Son of Man.  There is an echo there of Ezekiel.

Son of Man

 1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; 

Ezekiel, prophesy, speak truth to power, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel.  That has nothing to do with the shepherds who were watching their sheep.  The kings were thought of as shepherds of the people.  It is against the kings that Ezekiel speaks out.  The Person of Influence, speaking out against the People of Power.

prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd,

What has happened in exile is the CONSEQUENCE of all the failings that have mounted up as one King has succeed to another.

This is powerful stuff.  It is an indictment against the shepherds who have ruled.

Then comes the promise.  But the terms of the promise are very significant.
11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.  14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 
15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.  34
Accused of eating with tax collectors and sinners, criticised for eating at the home of Zacchaeus, Jesus was adamant,

The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.  Luke 19:10

The twelve had a message they were to take ‘to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’.  It was a proclamation of Good News – the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  And their task was nothing less than to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

Jesus tells a story of a Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep.  And then in John 10 there can be no doubting it.

14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.   John 10

Just as you find in the great 8th century prophets.  Just as you find in the Isaiah vision of Isaiah 65, so here is an agenda.  This is what it takes to be worthy of power, to exercise power properly …

16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice. 

This is Mary’s song – bringing down the rich.  Raising up the poor.

This is what Jesus fulfilled.

And it is the task we are called to fulfil.

The priority must be to those who are weak, vulnerable in what we do.

But it is the challenge we give to those in power – to give a priority to those who are weak, vulnerable, lost and strayed.

That’s what’s needed  in our world as we stand on the threshold of a new year.

Shot through Ezekiel is a sense of the presence of God that is real with the people as they seek to put things back together again.  The final chapters are a remarkable vision of a new temple.

A river of living water flows out from the temple to bring new life to the world.  That vision is taken up by Jesus when he speaks of himself as the living water.  When he speaks of the Spirit as rivers of living water flowing out from the heart of the believer (John 7:37ff) there are all sorts of echoes of this remarkable imagery of Ezekiel.  As we take bread and share in a cup that presence of Christ is with us and flows through us into a world of need.