Sunday, 27 May 2012

Dare to be a Daniel

It’s not only football games that can have two halves.

Books sometimes come in halves too.  And Daniel is very much a book of two halves.

We have worked our way through the Law and the Prophets and we are well on our way through the Writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament.  We are coming towards the climax to the books of the Old Testament.  But we are not quite there yet.

The Book of Daniel stands on the threshold of the final set sequence of books and it stands out very much alone in the Old Testament.

The book is actually written in two languages.  After an initial chapter written in Hebrew chapters 2-7 are written in Aramaic before the final chapters revert to Hebrew.

The first half of the book – chapters 1-6 are a sequence of stories that alternate – all tell about the stand Daniel and three other Jewish leaders take in the face of the devastating power of the Babylonian state Nebuchadnezzar and his successors.

The second part of the book from 7 to the end is a sequence of apocalyptic visions that I want to come back to next week.

There is a strange appropriateness to arrive at the book of Daniel on Pentecost Sunday.   Pentecost is a moment of utter transformation in the story of the first followers of Jesus.  It is the point at which they are galvanised into action.  And the action they take goes in the face of the powers that be, be it the Jewish leaders and officialdom in Jerusalem or the Gentile powers that be in Rome.

Jesus knew they were going to be up against it.  After all, he knew how much he himself was up against it in everything he did.  Just as he had come with a messasge to share and healing to bring, that’s exactly the task he set his followers as he sent out the twelve like sheep into the midst of wolves.  What Jesus envisaged was an immense amount of opposition. Opposition that would amount to persecution.

This was a scary venture.

At the moment when all was lost, that was the point for Jesus when his followers would have a strength to rise above themselves – and strength was nothing less than the Spirit of God.

When they hand you over do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time, for it is not you who speak but the Spirit of y our Father speaking through you.

There are echoes in what Jesus says of the story of Daniel.

Jesus goes on to speak of the untold hostility his followers will have … but they are to keep going in spite of the fact they won’t make it round all the towns of the Jewish people before ‘the Son of Man comes’.

And that is no coincidence that there should be such references and allusions to Daniel.

In a sense that’s the whole point of the book.

It’s set in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar as the destruction of the Babylonian power is at its worst.  But the book speaks into subsequent generations.  Indeed when we look at the visions of next week we shall see that it seems to be written against the backdrop of the awful events that gave rise to the Maccabean revolt.

In the first half of the book there is a rhythm – Daniel is an interpreter of dreams and summoned to the court of the tyrant king to interpret his dreams.  As he does so it becomes apparent that the God of the Jewish people, the God YHWH is the God of the Universe and he is all powerful.

Alongside the dreams and their interpretation come moments when Daniel and the three others are challenged in their faith.  But they hold firm.

The dreams interpreted in vividly dramatic stories Daniel confronts the demands of the tyrant stays true to this faith and is protected and saved by the unseen yet very real power of God.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego defy king Nebuchad nezzar and refuse to fall down at the feet of an enormous gold appearing statue the Emperor has made from gold.  Other Babylonians are out to entrap them.  But they stand firm in the face of everything.

Then it is the turn of Daniel to stand up to those who plot against him.  He is thrown into the Lions Den but again the stand he takes is vindicated.

In the fiery furnace there is another figure present with the three in the furnace.  And they are saved.

In the Lions den it is the angels of God who shut up the mouths of the lions.

The story told it then is a story that comes to life in subsequent generations.  The vicious power of the Babylonians is replaced by the more benign power of the Persians, but still the people are not free.  The Egyptians rise momentarily and then the Greeks under Alexander the Great.  There are moments of Egyptian power and Syrian power but then it is the  Romans that arise.

In turn as the Jewish people face untold opposition, oppression and repression the stories of Daniel figure large n the memory they hand on.  They are an inspiration to them as they too are called to take a stand in each generation.

The followers of Jesus were facing the same challenge.

But the promise of Jesus is that they will not be alone.

They go out as twelve together, they come back and find they have received just the strength Jesus spoke about.  Luke tells us 72 then go out  and return finding they too have received just the strength Jesus spoke about.

Jesus himself is arrested, tried and crucified.  And the confidence of the followers of Jesus deserts them.  But they are not alone.  Jesus appears to them and although that is only momentary, they stand firm.  Then it is on the Day of Pentecost that that moment of turning that transformation comes.  For they become aware they are not alone.

It is as if there is another presence with them – as there had been in the fiery furnace.  It is as if there is a protection from God just as Daniel experienced in the Lions Den.

The story of Acts … and the story of the church is a story then of people taking a stand.

At times the state seeks to take Christianity and bring it to heel.  But the followers of Jesus stand over against the powers that be to challenge, to question, to cajole and to transform.

That too is the task we share as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

This Pentecost Sunday we share in our prayers for those who are facing persecution.  We think specially of the descendants of those Jewish people exiled in Babylon – and the followers of Jesus among their midst.  They are facing persecution as ever as they have fled Iraq, sought refuge in Syria and face the devastation of all that is happening there.  Not easy times.  Need for strengthening, the strengthening of the Spirit.

In Egypt with the uncertainties of the outcome of the elections.  Again strength for those facing persecution.

And we will face those who criticise, those whose apathy drains our strength.  And we too need to take our stand.  And claim the strength promised in anticipation of Pentecost by Christ, the strength that is unseen and yet so very strong.

A strength we are to take to heart ourselves.

This is a year of anniversaries.  It has been the 40th anniversary of our Congregational Fedeartion.  It was moving at the annual meeting a fortnight ago to see how so many of the wounds that were caused at the times of the dividing of the way for many churches, have been healed in friendships and mutual respect.  My thought went to the first President of the CF, Margaret Stansgate.

A fiery person if ever there was one whose life spanned every decade of the twentieth century and a life of campaigning for social justice with a member of her family in the commons in each of those decades and still to this day.

An old Salvation Army hymn was one of her husband’s favourites.  You may know it …

Standing by a purpose ture
Heeding God’s command
Honour them, the faithful few!
All hail to Daniel’s band.

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known.

Interestingly, Tony Benn took that as the title of an autobiographical memoir he wrote and he told of the moment he saw a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den in the YMCA in Nagasaki of all places.

That made me think in turn of the story of one of the great Christians of the twentieth Century.  Nagai.  A radiologist and part of the Christian community in Japan that stood their ground against the dictates of the empire and suffered extensively.  Passionate in his commitment to peace he was outside the city of Nagasaki when the second nuclear bomb was detonated in 1945.

He rushed to aid the victims – in the charred remains of the city at the very epi-centre of the blast one of the few buildings to have any part of it still standing was the  Christian cathedral.  Ironic that the city to be bombed should have been the centre of the Christian community.

It strengthened his faith.  He worked for peace and for justice in the wake of the war before dying an early death from radiation sickness within ten years of the ending of the war.

He is another of whom it could be said he was a Dnaiel

Many mighty men are lost
Darning not to stand
Who for God had been a host
By joining Daniel’s band

Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone!

That too is the heritage we have as this year we mark the 350th anniversary of the day in August 1662 when the state once again asserted control over the church in this country and insisted only the prescribed readings be read, only state approved preachers should preach – and 2000 ministers were ejected from their churches.

It is a heritage of dissent that we stand in.

Many giants, great and tall,
Stalking through the land,
Headlong to the earth would fall
If met by Daniel’s band.

Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone!
Dare to have a purpose firm!

But that tradition doesn’t just go back to the stand taken by the likes of Margaret Stansgate on all sorts of issues, of Nagai in Japan, or of our forebears down through the ages.

It goes back to the very beginnings of the church that we mark today on the Day of Pentecost.

Empowered, strengthened by that presence, that presence of the very spirit of God, Peter and the others had the courage of their convictions to pass on the message of Christ and seek to make a difference in changing the lives of many, many people.

Hold the Gospel banner high!
On to victory grand!
Satan and his hosts defy,
And shout for Daniel’s band.

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose firm!
Dare to make it known!

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Reading the Gospels as a whole ... and the Sermon on the Mount

Reading through the Old Testament we’ve just come to the end of the Five Little Scrolls.  The Megilloth.  I want to pause a moment and reflect on the way Jewish people read the Scriptures.  At each of the five main festivals of their year they read the whole of each of the five books of the Megilloth.  How different that is from our experience of reading the Bible.  We tend to read small passages, be it in church or in our daily devotions.  What’s it like when you read a book as a whole?

Try reading a Gospel through from beginning to end.  Each Gospel has within it an indication of the way the book as a whole works.

Look to the very end of Matthew’s gospel and Jesus commands the disciples to ‘teach people to obey everything I have commanded you’.  He puts the teaching of Jesus into five blocks – read his gospel and find out what Jesus has commanded you to do.

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

There is a breathlessness to Mark’s Gospel as he quickly builds up to the climax in the Passion Narrative and then at the resurrection leaves you hanging in mid-air.  It’s as if this just the beginning of something that’s only just started and is continuing to this day!

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Luke is systematic – he describes how he has sifted the evidence and put it together to make sense of the words and actions of Jesus.
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. 

And John’s Gospel is written so that people come to believe in Christ and so find a new lease of life …

 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

What happens when you read substantially more than a brief passage.  In a moment I am going to take one classic passage that we all pay lip-service to, the Sermon on the Mount.  And I am going to share the whole of the Sermon on the Mount.  It is a good ‘sermon’ length.  It starts with a powerful opening, it goes on to explore what it really means to love your neighbour and goes on to explore what it takes to love God, before finishing by setting in front of us three stark choices.

The Sermon on the Mount

The Beatitudes

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

What’s it like belonging to God’s Kingdom?

 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


Salt and Light

 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.




The Law and the Prophets

 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

So, first of all, what does it mean to love your neighbour?


Concerning Anger

 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.


Concerning Adultery

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.


Concerning Divorce

 ‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.


Concerning Oaths

 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.


Concerning Retaliation

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.


Love for Enemies

 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

As far as loving your neighbour is concerned keep at it and don’t give up until you get to the point at which you can say, It is accomplished!

The second thing that’s all-important is loving God.  What does it take to love God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength?


Concerning Almsgiving

‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

 ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


Concerning Prayer

 ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

 ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
 ‘Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
   hallowed be your name. 
   Your kingdom come.
   Your will be done,
     on earth as it is in heaven. 
   Give us this day our daily bread. 
   And forgive us our debts,
     as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
   And do not bring us to the time of trial,
     but rescue us from the evil one. 

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.


Concerning Fasting

 ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


Concerning Treasures

 ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.


The Sound Eye

 ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!


Serving Two Masters

 ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.


Do Not Worry

 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.


Judging Others

‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.


Profaning the Holy

 ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.




Ask, Search, Knock

 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

How can we sum it all up?

The Golden Rule

 ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

If we are going to take all this seriously we need to make choices.


The Narrow Gate

 ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.


A Tree and Its Fruit

 ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.


Concerning Self-Deception

 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”


Hearers and Doers

 ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 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. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!

[from the New Revised Standard Version]

Ruth - a story of courage and determination

The calendar year has a rhythm to it as one season follows to the next.  How wonderful, today of all days, to see the daffodils blooming all over the town!

The Christian year has a rhythm to it too.  In what way that relates to the rhythm of the calendar year will differ all over the world.  But for me there is a rhythm that pulses with the calendar year.  That’s partly because in true nonconformist fashion I see the Christian year unfold a little differently from the traditional liturgical calendar that our Congregational forebears reacted against.

Maybe it’s because I come from a family of teachers!

What’s interesting then is to notice how, even though we do not stick to a strict liturgical set of lectionary readings, the passages of Scripture we read at each of the great festivals are basically the same from one year to the next.

For me the year starts in September with a harvest festival that celebrates the goodness of God in creation and the challenge God gives to us to be stewards of the whole environment of God’s creation.  And with that festival I associate readings from Genesis about creation, Deuteronomy about ancient harvest offerings that always remember the poor, the widow and the foreigner, the seed-time and harvest parables of Jesus and the psalms of creation.

Then, having celebrated the God of creation, we move on to Christmas and celebrate the way this God of all creation comes alongside us and shares in our humanity in the birth of the Christ child.  And with Christmas there are all the Christmas readings from the Prophets and the Gospels.

Then it’s on to Holy Week, the Passion and Easter.  And the readings are the readings of the Passion.  On Maundy Thursday we often have prolonged readings, in many churches the whole of the Passion story is read at great length, sometimes set to music.  At the 3-00 service on Good Friday afternoon the whole of the passion story from one of the Gospels will be chanted, taking 20 minutes while the whole congregation stands.  That musical tradition comes into its own with the St John Passion and the St Matthew Passion of Bach.  How powerful the whole story is, read or sung at length, simply from the biblical text.

And at Easter the Easter, resurrection stories, and for me how precious the Road to Emmaus has become.

Then, six weeks later the climax to the year.  The Risen Christ no longer to be seen, an unseen power, a strength from beyond ourselves is let loose into our lives at Pentecost and there is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, with that passage from Acts 2, and passages about the fruit of the Spirit, the Gifts of the Spirit coming to the fore.

A wonderful cycle.

Jesus and the first followers of Christ knew the rhythm of a year of festivals. 

John 8 sees Jesus in the temple for the festival of Booths when he declares I am the light of the world.

On the Thursday of that great week in Jerusalem it is the feast of Passover that the disciples prepare in that upper room.

And six weeks later as they gather again in that same upper room, Jerusalem is packed with people of all nationalities at what the Jewish people know as the Festival of Weeks, and which we think of far more with the Greek word of Pentecost.

It is interesting that the Jews associate biblical texts with their major festivals too.  After the Law and the Prophets, the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures the writings opens with Psalms, Job and Proverbs celebrating God, agonising over where God is in a world of horrible suffering, and mapping out the choices we need to take to live in that horrible world.

Then comes the Megilloth, the Five Scrolls.  It’s not until four or five hundred years after the time of Christ that each of these five scrolls becomes linked with a particularly significant Jewish festival.  Since that time each of these books has become a prominent part of the Jewish liturgy associated with those five festivals.

The Book of Ruth is associated with the Festival of Weeks, Pentecost.
The Song of Songs with Passover
The Book of Ecclesiastes with the Festival of Booths
The Book of Lamentations with the Ninth of Av – that is the anniversary date of the fall of Jerusalem in BC 587  and in one of those quirks of history the very day on which the Temple was destroyed again in AD 70.
The Book of Esther is associated with the Festival of Purim.

It is interesting that around the time those links are made in the Jewish world, Jerome’s Latin translation of what for Christians has become the Old Testament follows the very much more western, logical, chronological mindset of the Greek translators and orders the books entirely differently.

That comes over into the English translations, even though the English translations have gone back to the Hebrew text.

It means for us Christians the grouping together of these five books, and the link with a particular festival has been lost.

And that’s a great pity.  In the bible Jesus would have used these books would, if not actually a set of Five Scrolls, would have been grouped together somewhere in this third section of the Scriptures.  Different Hebrew texts actually order them slightly differently.  Over the next few weeks we’ll see what happens when we read the next five books in the order they appear in Hebrew copies of the Tanak, the Hebrew Scriptures.  And let’s keep an eye out for the link with those festivals.  Though that link was formally made later, it’s just possible the link was made then because in the remembered history, traditions had sprung up associating these books with those festivals.

In a very 21st century version of the age old custom of pressing flowers I put the ears of corn I plucked walking down from the hill of beatitudes towards the shore of the Sea of Galilee through a laminator and have stuck them inside the cover of the Bible I had with me then and have used ever since.  I did the walk and re-visited that site a year later half way between Easter and Pentecost.  And the grain was nearly ripe for harvest.

The Festival of Weeks, Pentecost is the first harvest festival of Jewish year that started back at the beginning of winter.  This is a time of new beginnings when the first produce of the year is ready to be harvested and communities are given once more a new lease of life.

And what’s at the heart of the Book of Ruth but a story of gleaning in the fields of the harvest?  A natural link to make this the book to read at the first of the harvest festivals.

It may be set in the days when the judges ruled (and located in our English bibles between Judges and 1 Samuel), but it speaks each year into that moment when communities breathe a sigh of relief, gather the first produce of the year and rejoice in that new lease of life they have been given.

Let’s consider what the story has to say into that situation.

The story begins when there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah journeyed the seventeen miles down through the wilderness, across the Jordan up into the hill country beyond and went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.

It’s brilliant story telling as it lulls you into a false sense of security that we are going to be told the story of this man and his sons.  Their names are virtually forgotten, and certainly aren’t everyday names in our culture!  Elimelech and the two sons Mahlon and Chilion.  Their names are forgotten because they don’t figure in the story.  Tragically they die.  Not before the two sons have taken Moabite wives.  One  of those wives remains home in the land of Moab and so the name of Orpah is not one we come across in our culture.

But the widow and the daughter-in-law have names that are as familiar as any to our ears because this is a book about them, where they are centre stage.  The widow, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth.

Hearing that the famine has ended Naomi decides it’s better for her to go back to Judah.

It’s touching to see the love and concern Naomi has for her two daughters in law as she makes her way down towards the Jordan and the journey back through the wilderness to Bethlehem.  She prays God’s blessing on them, bids them return to their own land and their own people.  With a kiss she and the two younger women break down in tears.

Naomi insists – and there is a logic to her reasoning.  The two Moabite women will have no security in Naomi’s homeland of Judah, Naomi can offer no security in her home. They must return.  Orpah kissed her mother in law but Ruth clung to her.

The scene is poignant and touching as Orpah begins to walk away.  Naomi turns to Ruth and insists.

‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’ 16But Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
   or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
   where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
   and your God my God. 
17 Where you die, I will die—
   there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
   and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’ 

There’s then the wonderful silence of companionship.

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

It’s so easy to read this as a lovely romance.  It’s more like a story of daring and courage.  Notice that word ‘determined’.  Ruth’s decision took great courage and determination.  This is the story of a determined woman.

And you immediately see why it took courage.

The two cross the Jordan make that seventeen mile journey up through the wilderness and arrive in Bethlehem – the whole town was stirred because of them and you recognise the courage and determination Ruth needs in the question the women ask.

They see the two women approach and they say, Is this Naomi?  The younger woman is ignored.

The bitterness and the anger of Naomi wells up.

‘Call me no longer Naomi, [the name means ‘Pleasant’]
   call me Mara, [the name means ‘Bitter’]

   for the Almighty
 has dealt bitterly with me. 
I went away full,
   but the Lord has brought me back empty;
why call me Naomi
   when the Lord has dealt harshly with
   and the Almighty
 has brought calamity upon me?’

Just notice the tone of Naomi’s homecoming.  There’s no sense of relief in her voice. There’s no joy in what she says.  There’s bitterness.  I detect an anger too.  Is there also fear, apprehension, uncertainty?

Notice in the skilful way the story is told there is no response.  No one says, it’s going to be all right.

What is the response of the people of Bethlehem?

We’ve already been told in verse 19 ‘the whole town was stirred’.

That’s a very ambiguous word.  It could be positive as in the modern Jewish Tanak Translation

the whole city buzzed with excitement over them.

Holladay’s Hebrew Lexicon of the Old Testament suggests two quite negative ways of translating this word …

‘thrown into confusion’

‘be in an uproar’

Maybe the reaction of the people is not all welcoming. May be there is something that stands in the way of an over-effusive warm welcome.

Let’s take the text as it stands.  Seeing the two women, the city are thrown into confusion, the women ask, Is this Naomi, ignoring the other younger woman.  Naomi responds with bitterness.  And there is no response.

Verse 22 maybe explains the coolness.

One word is repeated.

It reminds us, twice, where Ruth is from.

So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab.

That’s maybe why there is such confusion.  Naomi has brought with her a younger woman who is a Moabite, from the country of Moab.  A foreigner.

Then comes a lovely sign-off.

And they come to Bethlehem at the beginning of the Barley Harvest.

It’s the time for new beginnings, it’s the time when the community to breathe a sigh of relief – there’s going to be food on the table!  There’s a new lease of life … how wonderful for the people of Bethlehem.

We’re pretty sure that it will turn out to be wonderful for Naomi as she returns to her home.

But for Ruth?

Will it be a new lease of life for Ruth?

I had thought to continue the story.  But it’s his bi-centenary year, and so I am going to take a leaf out of one of Charles Dickens’ serialised books and leave us with a bit of a cliff-hanger. What will become of this very determined young woman, Ruth?

What does this story do for us, reading it at Pentecost?

Pentecost is a time of new beginning, when the community breathes a sigh of relief – a new start to be made.

That’s what we do with the out pouring of the Holy Spirit.  We can see it as an event – we can also see it as something we need after the dark days are done.  The Spirit is a new lease of life that ushers in a new harvest, the fruit of love, joy and peace and patience.

It’s easy to overlook, but Luke goes out of his way to draw our attention to the fact that among those who are ‘all together’ on the Day of Pentecost are women as well as men.  It’s sometimes tempting to see it as the twelve.  But the opening chapter of Acts is about the 120.  Among them ‘certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus as well as his brothers.’.

These are determined women as well as men who have stuck with Jesus to the end and beyond to resurrection.  These are courageous women as well as men who have been prepared to make a commitment to Jesus and say,

Do not press me to leave you
   or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
   where you lodge, I will lodge;

And as the Spirit is poured upon those determined women as well as men Peter is absolutely certain,

this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
17 “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. 
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy. 

Not once, but twice, comes that word of Peter that it is the task now of these determined courageous women as well as men to prophesy, speak the truth of God’s Word to the powers that be and to all no matter who they are.

This indeed is exciting, challenging stuff.  It is as we come together women and men in the body of Christ the church, with determination and courage that is strengthened by the Spirit of God that we can sense a new beginning, a new lease of life once more bearing fruit in the love of God.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

For such a time as this - Esther's Story

It was a special day on Friday, sharing with Anne’s family as we remembered Richard.

There was something special in our service as Richard’s daughter Joanna brought the Judaism she has adopted as her faith into the service.  Her son Josh read a lovely prayer remembering his granddad in Hebrew, a prayer that had been prepared by the Rabbi of their reformed synagogue.

Joanna’s husband, Jeremy, drew the service to a close reading the Kaddish, that prayer that is said by a family member at every funeral service, a prayer I was familiar with from our Holocaust Memorial services in the synagogue and latterly in the town hall here.

Jeremy’s parents belong to an orthodox synagogue.  After the service, it was lovely to have an all too brief conversation with them.  Within moments we were talking of the tragedy of intolerance that has swept through the extremes of Islam, Christianity and of Judaism.  And of the need for tolerance.  Jeremy’s parents reflected on the way they lived in a neighbourhood with Jewish people, Muslims and Christians, all of whom were friendly with each other.  They went on to comment that even in Palestine and Israel down through the years, Jew, Christian and Muslim have lived peaceably together.  We bemoaned the current state of affairs.

We spoke momentarily of the synagogue here in Cheltenham – I recalled how moving it was to be in the congregation at the 160th anniversary celebrations when a Jewish historian and raconteur had spoken of the tragic history of Jewish people in these islands, and honoured Oliver Cromwell who was the one to permit Jewish people to return to these islands after hundreds of years of exile.  I commented on that strand of tolerance that was part of our Congregational heritage.  We firmly believe what we believe, but we respect your right to believe what you believe.

We were of a mind, how vital it is to seek out that toleration.

I told the tale of the two plaques of allegiance to Queen Victoria that had been taken down to be re-furbished.  The restorers discovered the names of at least two earlier monarchs under the name of Queen Victoria showing that the plaques were very much older than the Cheltenham Synagogue itself.

Then it was Jeremy’s father who said what I  had read and heard.  But it was strangely moving to hear it come from him … that they read a prayer of allegiance to the monarch in every Sabbath day service at their synagogue.

What’s interesting about that is the way Jewish people have down through the centuries had to learn how to live in an alien culture, tracing a fine line between maintaining their own faith and religious practices within a culture that is very, very different.

In some ways that Jewish experience is something that we too as Christians need also to learn from.  After all there is a very strong Jewishness to Jesus, to Paul and to the whole of the New  Testament which we lose sight of at our peril.

Nowhere is the art of juggling that commitment to your own faith and need to live within an alien culture more apparent than in the book of Esther.

It is set in a very particular period.  The Babylonian empire that had taken the Jewish people into exile had fallen to the Persian Empire of Cyrus.  The Persians allowed the peoples conquered by the Babylonians not only to return to their homelands but also to rebuild their religious institutions.  For the Jewish people that meant that the Persian empire supported their return to Jerusalem,, and their re-building of the temple.

The Jewish people remained under Persian domination until that empire fell and a Greek empire under Alexander the Great took its place, to be followed by the power of Rome.  And along the way there were moments of Egyptian and Syiran domination too.

The Book of Esther is set in the time of Persian Domination.   The political, cultural, feel of the book is at the time of this empire.  Events are recounted as a wonderful story and tale.  And it has a particular power.  As the book comes to an end an annual festival is set up, the Feast of Purim, which is specifically to commemorate the events recounted in the Book of  Esther.

Esther now is the fifth of those little scrolls each of which is read at a particular feast in the Jewish liturgical year.  The Book of Esther is read at the feast of Purim.

It is a wonderful tale of courage and conviction in the face of the powers that be and a prevailing culture that is hostile to the faith.  It is a tale to inspire us too as we seek to live out our faith in a culture that can so often be alien and hostile.

Esther begins in the court of King Ahasuerus who rules over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia.  The Persian empire is a major world power.  It opens as the king throws a party, a lavish banquet lasting seven days where the drinking goes on ‘without restraint’.  And at the same time his Queen, Vahshti throws another banquet for the women.

On the seventh day of banqueting the King in his drunkenness demands that Queen Vashti be brought to the men’s banquet so he can show off her beauty.  She refuses to come.  He is incensed, deposes Queen Vashti and writes a decree to every province decrying her defiance and demanding by the Law of the Medes and Persians, a law that could not be broken, that every man should be master in his own house.

When he sobered up and came to his senses King Ahasuerus began to regret losing such a beautiful consort as Queen Vashti.  He instructs his courtiers and particularly the Eunuchs, to seek out a beautiful woman worthy to take her place.

In the citadel of Susa was a Jewish man, Mordecai, from the tribe of Benjamin  who had been dragged from his home in Judah by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.  He had brought up a cousin following the death of her parents, whose name was Esther.

Mordecai arranged for Esthe to join the harem of the king so she could catch his attention, but he was careful to make sure her identity as a Jewish woman should be concealed.  The beauticians set to work and in due course, after cosmetic treatment for six months with myrrh and another six months with other expensive perfumes and cosmetics, her turn came to be paraded in front of King Ahasuerus.

She it was who won the king’s favour.  She it was who was crowned Queen in Vashit’s place.  Great was the rejoicing as a public holiday was proclaime in all 127 provinces.

Mordecai kept the secret of her identiy, and kept an eye on his adopted daughter now Queen Esther.  One day, he heard two of the eunuchs of the court of King Ahasuerus plotting to assassinate the king.  He managed to get a message of warning to Esther who warned the king and the plot was thwarted.  The king and his queen were saved.

There was a power struggle going on in the court of King Ahasuerus.  The one who came to power and gained promotion was as ever happens, someone not worthy of the power he craved.

Haman it was who gained power.

Mordecai had no respect for his underhanded dealings.  And when in his arrogance a decree went out that everyone should fall down and do obeisance to Haman, Mordecai refused.  Haman was incensed and determined to have him executed.  When he learned that Mordecai was  Jew he was not satisfied to execute Mordecai alone but determined to destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of  Ahasuerus.

Can you see why the Jewish people should be so passionate about this story?  It’s one that has resonated with them down through the centuries.  The tragedy of the Jewish people is that this is a decree that has been made on their heads down through the centuries.  The tragedy of us Christian people is that too often from the Christendom especially from the time of Constantine onwards has been complicit in this anti-semitism.

How vital we stand with Jewish people in honouring this story, not just because of the way it helps us as Christians to have the courage of our convictions against a sometimes hostile culture, but also because it challenges us always to reject anti-semitism and be shoulder to shoulder with Jewish people as they together with us are drawn to that kind of insight and tolerance that our new-found friends on Friday were speaking of.   I would consider it entirely appropriate, however, in standing shoulder to shoulder with Jewish people who speak out against a particular political party or government in Israel.  Never let that kind of stand be confused with anti-semitism!

Haman determined on the destruction of all Jewish people in all 127 provinces of the whole Persian empire.

in the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur – which means ‘the lot’ – before Haman for the day and for the month.  And the lot fell on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar.

Well in advance of that day Haman makes his move.

“There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laswsa are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them.”

What a dark and sinister thing to say.  It is the justification for the state persecution of Jewish people down through the centuries.  But it is also the justification for the persecution of Christians in places like Iraq, Syria, Egpyt this very day.

The order goes out all over the Persian empire - on that 13th day of the twelfth month the day of Purim all Jewish people are to be annihilated.

Mordecai hears of the plan and is mortified.  He decides to do something about it and does just what his forebears the prophets of not that long ago had done.  He demonstrates his abhorrence of the plan in the streets wearking sackcloth and ashes.

Esther sees him and secretly finds out what he is up to and why he is making such a show of himself.  In an exchange of secret messages, she reassures Mordecai that she will be safe.  Mordecai is adamant, she will  not be safe, and in any case it is not about her safety.

“If you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter but you and your father’s family will perish.  Who knows?  Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”  4:14

Wow!  What a statement.

Keeping silence is the worst indictment of all.  That powerful statement of Martin Niemoeller comes to mind.

They came for the communists and I kept silent because I was not a communist
They came for the Jews and I kept silent because I was not a Jew
They came for the trade unionists and I kept silent because I was not a trade unionist
They came for the gypsies, the homosexuals, the Catholics and I kept silent because I was not a gypsy, a homosexual or a  Catholic
They came for me and there was no one left to speak up for me.

Martin Luther King Jr

Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of bad people but the silence of good people.

The tragedy of silence.

“If you keep silence at such a time as this …”

No, Queen Esther’s time has come.  She has something she needs to do.

Queen Esther holds a banquet.  King Ahasuerus is so taken with her beauty that he holds out his sceptre – and Queen Esther touches it with her sceptre and he makes her a promise, “”What is it Queen Esther?  What is your request?  It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.”

Aren’t we familiar with such a promise as that from somewhere else.  Isn’t it was Herod Antipas promises his daughter – only to end up having to execute John the Baptist?  The echoes in that story of this story, make that story of Herod all the more contemptible and reflect how awful that Herodian regime actually was.

Queen Esther  insists Haman and the King attends a private banquet just for the three of them.

Haman brags to his family that he is to attend a private banquet with the King and  Queen, but at the same time is incensed at the continuing protests of Mordecai.  Haman’s wife comes up with the solution.  Prepare a gallows fifty feet high and tell the King to have Mordecai executed on your way to the banquet.

Unknown to Haman that very night King Ahauerus cannot sleep.  He too is unsettled by Mordecai’s protests, but half remembers that Mordecai had thwarted an assassination attempt on hi.  He summoned trusted courtiers to bring the minute books of his court, the annals of the king.  There he reads for himself once again of Mordecai’s warning.  He concludes that giving Mordecai an honour is long overdue and that might stop his protests.

When morning comes King Ahasuerus is set to instruct Haman to honour Mordecai just at the very moment Haman is getting ready to ask the king to decree Mordecai’s execution on a fifty foot high gallows.

A head on clash between these two conflicting positions is inevitable.

What happens is that Mordecai is given the honour of a royal parade through the streets of Susa.  Haman’s wife is fearful for his future.

The parade over, the Banquet begins. Esther makes her request known to the King.  “O king, if it pleases the king, let my life be given me – that is my petition – the the lives of my people - that is my request.  For we have been sold, I and my people , to be destroyed, to be killed and to be annihilated.”

The king grants her request – Haman throws himself at the feet of Esther begging for clemency.,  The king thinks he is attacking his Queen, and, you’ve guessed it, Haman ends up on the gallows he had prepared fo r Mordecai.

So it is that Queen Esther saves the Jewish people.  Not only that but she secures their future by turning the tables on those who under Haman had been out to destroy them.

Mordecai is given a place of standing in the court.  A decree goes out from the King permitting Jewish people throughout the empire to defend themselves and giving them protection.

Mordecai went out from the presence of the King wearing royal robes of blue and white with a golden crown and a mantle of fine linen and purpoe while the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced.

For the Jews there was light and glands, joy and honour.

Things came to a head on the very day that Haman had conspired to make the day when the Jewish people would be assassinated.

On that day the 13th day of the month of Adar the Jewish people gained their freedom, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feating and gladness.

And that day has become the day of the Feast of Purim ever since.

The Feast of Purim Inaugurated

18 But the Jews who were in Susa gathered on the thirteenth day and on the fourteenth, and rested on the fifteenth day, making that a day of feasting and gladness. 19Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the open towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting, a holiday on which they send gifts of food to one another.
20 Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far,21enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, 22as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. 23So the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.
24 Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur—that is, ‘the lot’—to crush and destroy them; 25but when Esther came before the king, he gave orders in writing that the wicked plot that he had devised against the Jews should come upon his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. 26Therefore these days are called Purim, from the word Pur. Thus because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them, 27the Jews established and accepted as a custom for themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would continue to observe these two days every year, as it was written and at the time appointed. 28These days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city; and these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.
29 Queen Esther daughter of Abihail, along with the Jew Mordecai, gave full written authority, confirming this second letter about Purim.30Letters were sent wishing peace and security to all the Jews, to the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus,31and giving orders that these days of Purim should be observed at their appointed seasons, as the Jew Mordecai and Queen Esther enjoined on the Jews, just as they had laid down for themselves and for their descendants regulations concerning their fasts and their lamentations. 32The command of Queen Esther fixed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing.
We need to take to hear the call to courage and conviction.  The courage to take a stand, to stand up for what is right.

But it is from this kind of story too that Jewish people have also learned to live with another culture.

The final three verses of a very short chapter 10 tell us what happened to Mordecai.

The ability to take your stand, stand up for what you believe and walk with a culture this is a message for us to take to heart.

10King Ahasuerus laid tribute on the land and on the islands of the sea. 2All the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honour of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the annals of the kings of Media and Persia? 3For Mordecai the Jew was next in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was powerful among the Jews and popular with his many kindred, for he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his descendants.

Where are we in our society?

Some would have us believe – among them George Carey, that we face this kind of persecution in our society.

I do not believe that to be the case.

There are societies where Christian people face this kind of persecution.  We need to be supportive of them and not keep silent but speak out.

But this is not a society where there is such persecution.  We must speak out, we must have the courage of our convictions. 

As Mordecai ‘sought out the good of his people and interceded for their welfare’ so too must we.

But we need also to work with what can be an alien and even a hostile culture and make it work for what is right and for what is just.

You could also argue that we have the opportunity often in our society to be as Mordecai ended up – and play our part within that society to shape it in the way it should be.  In a month when the Government has promised matched funding for all we raise in Christian Aid week as a way of using development aid we should rejoice at that and make the most of the opportunity it presents.  While at the same time taking a stand for the justice that is at the heart of our faith in our society too.

We must look to the Jesus who said,

46I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. 47I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.