Advent doodle 4: the house on the rocks

When I read the parable of the wise and foolish builders, I find myself wondering how the metaphor of a house that can stand firm against the storm, ensuring the safety of the house-builder, jives with the command to be hospitable. There is work to be done, here, I think, about the relationship between metaphors of judgement and practical care and humanity, but for now, here is today’s doodle, which offers the strong, rock-founded house as a place in which kingdom-hospitality might be offered.

From Matthew 7:21-25

‘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.  ‘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.

The thing about Advent is….

Jesus is coming - look busy

The thing about Advent is…

…that the readings tend to make it feel rather more about the second coming of Jesus than the first coming; there is more apocalypse than incarnation.  Great! At least all the judgement and warnings are a useful antidote to the Christmas Cheer that seems to begin as soon as Remembrance is over.  But how many of us are sufficiently self-controlled and self-motivated that we can do without any kind of oversight and accountability? Many of us need the promise of reward or the threat of punishment if we are give of our best, and I know that I’m among those who have signed off from twitter for a couple of hours in order to get something important done, by telling all my twitter followers to check up on me and ask me when I come back online whether I actually finished what I was supposed to have done.  The Holman Hunt painting of Jesus, standing at the door and knocking, can feel like both a promise and a threat, and the caption that many have added (as I have) may be more of a realistic statement about our own inability to motivate ourselves than we’d like to think.  The question, ‘if Jesus were to come again right now, would he be delighted with how I am spending my time and energy and gifts?’ will always be an interesting and challenging one. What we do during Advent, and Christmas that matter, although it may be different from usual, must still keep the integrity of who we are and not be at odds with what we do the rest of the time.

The thing about Advent is…

…that we still live in a state of longing and yearning; the old access card adverts encouraged us to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’ and countless sermons since have encouraged us to put it back again. But the truth is that the world is very, very aware of the fact that we are waiting, and yearning and wanting in so very many ways.  Those who sit in darkness long for light, those who are hungry long to be fed, many who are struggling financially long for the security of paid employment.  And those who are in debt long for a day – which must seem as if it will never come – when their debts will be cleared, when all payments have been made, when they finally own the things they’ve bought.  There is a lot of waiting and a lot of wanting, and a lot of yearning around. And that’s even before you factor in the years of faithful prayer for peace, for justice, for our common humanity and accountability to one another to win in the eternal battle with greed, self-centredness, and fear.  We are living in a world that longs for things to be renewed, healed, and transformed, and no amount of credit and quick fixes replace the hard work of striving, praying, urging, speaking out, and doing the work of renewal that God desires for us.

The thing about Advent is…

…that at the start of the church’s year we look back as well as forward. We remember with thanksgiving, with repentance, with awe and respect, with questions and doubt and with diligence on all the time before the incarnation: the prophets, the kings and queens, and the patriarchs and matriarchs all have their own place within the huge, overarching story of salvation, and our own place in that story is but a tiny  moment: our own stories are part-written, part-unknown, just as the world’s story is part-written, part-unknown.  We can look at the stories of the past and see in them – even the awful bits and the ugly bits – the patient purposes of God unfolding. We may look at our own lives and see no such pattern, yet we must continue to grasp the truth that we are part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world just as are any of the people we celebrate and revere from our faith’s heritage.

The thing about Advent is…

…that it only makes sense as a season of preparation for something more. Advent is always under threat from an early Christmas, but it is also under threat from a Christmas that has become less than it should be.  The momentous prophetic words that we’ll hear over the next few weeks only make sense if we celebrate Christmas in a way that honours their hope for the breadth and depth and height and scope of God’s love in Christ – and that’s whether we’re anticipating the annual celebration of his incarnation or the promise of his final coming among us to renew the earth at the end of all things.

 

Judgement and Salvation

Some thoughts on the readings for Advent 2 (Malachi 3.1-4 and Luke 3.1-6)

Judgement and salvation – two sides of the same coin.

Throughout the Old Testament prophetic tradition is the notion of ‘The Day of the Lord’ – in today’s first reading, it’s ‘The Day of his Coming’ (and I imagine we’re all hearing those words to Handel’s music, just as we do the words from Isaiah quoted in today’s gospel).  The Day of the Lord was both a message of hope – that there would come a time when God would intervene and save his chosen people from the various nations and races that had persecuted them – and a warning – that when the Day came, everyone would be judged, and that included God’s people themselves. Their birth-right, their national identity, their history, would not protect them if their own behaviour was just as worthy of judgement, condemnation and punishment as the behaviour of their oppressors.

Equally, within the tradition of the Day of the Lord is contained the possibility that God’s love and care can be extended far beyond the confines of the chosen people.  Isaiah, in particular, contains many oracles that hint at the eventual ingathering of the nations, drawn by the love and power of God, and converging on the ‘Holy Mountain’.

But our two readings today are about more than judgement and salvation. They are about transformation. We may look on the image of the refiners’ fire and equate it to the fires of hell; we may think of it as a means of punishment, of destruction. But the fire here is not one of punishment, but of purification, it is the purging of everything that is unworthy of God, and unworthy of who we really are, created in his image. It is the liberation of all that is good in us, it is our transformation from unwieldy lumps of rock to pure and precious gold. And God, the master-refiner, is the only one who can truly see within us, through all the stuff that gets in the way, and help us to become who we were always meant to be.

This is God’s judgement.  It’s devastating, but it’s life-giving. At present we are people of dross and gold, but God longs to burn away all our impurities and enable us to shine.  We are fields of wheat and weeds, and God longs for the time when he can pull up and destroy everything about us that will never be fruitful.  This is his judgement.  And this is his salvation.  Perhaps they are not two sides of the same coin, but in fact one in the same thing.  Judgement and salvation together are the transformation that only God can achieve.

Who can stand the day of his coming?  Well, plainly nobody can.  The idea of standing tall and proud while we are transformed so wonderfully is absurd.  We may kneel, or fall, we may be tossed about and overwhelmed, but if we try to stand on our own two feet, resilient and strong, self-reliant and in control, then we cannot possibly embrace the judgement, salvation and transformation that God longs to achieve in us.  We cannot stand in the face of this process. And it’s OK that we can’t.

In the Isaiah passage quoted in Luke’s gospel we also see transformation at work, but it is no longer the personal transformation of our souls, it is the transformation of the whole of creation, it’s almost a re-creation of the whole earth, a re-alignment of tectonic plates, with mountains sinking into the earth’s crust and valleys rising up in response, so that the winding roads which previously picked their way through the rise and fall of the landscape can now run straight.

It’s a metaphor, of course it is. There is nothing wrong with hills, or valleys, or indeed of roads with corners. But the transformation of the landscape is a global picture of the transformative power of God, the power to re-create, to re-form a world in which nothing can get in the way of God’s self-communication to his world. There are no barriers, nothing blocking our view of God, nothing that can stand in the way of God coming to us.  His path is straight, and his purpose is absolute.

We live in a complex world. Our life’s journeys are full of twists and turns, of uphill struggles, and descents, often into the valley of the shadow of death.  Even as we look out over the flat fenland fields (and that passage always makes me think of the road between Earith and Sutton, on the way of Ely), we may wish, sometimes, that our journey of life were a little more like that.  Few distractions, few gear changes, few challenges, nothing unexpected, because we can see for miles. A journey in which we can clearly see our destination and head towards it, just as we can see the Cathedral at Ely on the horizon when we are still miles away from it.

But there is a great deal of transforming to be done before that time.  There is much in us, as well as in the metaphorical landscape, that blocks our view of God, or that blocks other people’s view of God.  There is much twisting and turning in our own journey of faith, and there is much dross mingled with our gold.  We are in dire need of transformation, all of us, and this is a time of year when we’re encouraged to admit that.

But rather than write off this transformation as merely a future moment, promised long ago but yet to be fulfilled, and pinning our hopes on this future ‘Day of the Lord’, however painful it may be fore us, might we instead look for the signs that just like the days of creation, the day of the Lord is a long, long, process, and the judgement and transformation are not just for the future, but are happening right now, if we are willing to submit to them? Every time we meet together as God’s people we bring before him our sins, and we ask him to purify our hearts and lives.  We bring before him the complexity of our lives and ask him to show us a path through it all.

God is at work transforming us, and transforming this world right now.  All around us there are hints and glimpses of this process. Even as we look towards its ultimate completion, we can give thanks for the fact that God’s work of judgement and salvation is well under way, and that we are very much part of it – just as much as Malachi, as Isaiah, as Luke, and as John the Baptist were in their own day and in their own way.

Camels and needles – Mark 10.17-31

It’s another of those gospel readings that’s slightly odd and difficult to understand, and in which the bits we do understand make for challenging reading.

First, I’m not going to explain away the thing about the camel going through the eye of a needle by saying that ‘the eye of the needle’ was the name of one of the smaller gates into the city of Jerusalem, large enough only for a camel on its own, not one laden with possessions. This may well be the case, but it’s not the point. At least, I don’t think it’s the point.

So what is? Well, there are a few things that are well worth pursuing.

Let’s start with what Jesus says just after the camel bit, namely that what looks impossible turns out not to be, because God is not limited by what we can imagine, and by what we think the normal rules set out.  ‘For people it is impossible, but not for God, everything is possible for God.’ The other famous time in the gospels which talks about what is possible and what is not is when the angel speaks to Mary in Luke chapter 1 – the proof that God can do the unlikely thing of giving her a child while she is still a virgin is that God has already given a child to her elderly cousin Elizabeth, after years of the older woman and her husband trying to conceive. ‘For nothing will be impossible with God,’ concludes the angel.  We might well try and find ways of explaining away that bit of divine intervention too – many people do – but sometimes the gospels do present us with a miracle. Jesus does them all the time. If God can perform the miracle of a virgin birth, which human beings consider to be impossible, perhaps he can also thread camels through needles, and indeed grant a place in heaven to someone rich.  Indeed, anything is possible with God.

So far, so good.

So is the rich man doomed or isn’t he? He certainly seems to think so, as he goes away despondent. But is he really?  Remember that lovely line, ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him,’ or words to that effect. Is the rich young man, whom Jesus loved, condemned by his wealth, or is there something less simplistic going on?

Remember the famous phrase, that money is the root of all evil?  I can see some of you longing to correct me, that it is not money itself, but the love of money that leads us into sin (that’s from 1 Timothy chapter 6). Perhaps it is not ownership of wealth itself that is problematic,  but rather the miserliness and selfishness that clings onto it, that will not let it go, that gets obsessed by it.  Is Jesus testing the young man’s ability to let go?  To be generous?  Contrast this story with the encounter between Jesus and Zaccheus: the man was a crook, but Jesus did not ask him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor – Zaccheus himself demonstrated that he was no longer a slave to his money by repaying with interest the people he had defrauded, and by making a generous donation to the poor from what was left over. But at no point did Jesus require him to give everything.

So why does he ask for such an enormous act of generosity and selflessness from this young man in today’s gospel?  Is it at least in part to test the man’s attachment to his wealth?  That’s certainly part of is. Great wealth brings great responsibility. All of us here are wealthy in comparison with so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world.  We all bear great responsibility in the way that we use and spend and give away our wealth, and we all need to spend time thinking about praying about how our possessions and our money can be a blessing to ourselves and to those around us, to God’s church, to the charities that are close to our heart, and to God’s world and people. The more we have, the more decisions we are called to make when it comes to how our generosity is going to find expression.

All of that goes without saying, but it’s not all that is going on.  Remember how the story starts. The man approaches Jesus, and asks him what he must do to get to heaven. When Jesus replies, reminding him of the commandments, the young man is able to reply that he’s always kept them all. Unlikely? Maybe, but even if we give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he really has led a super-virtuous life, it does rather seem as if the man is asking the wrong question. If he’s kept all the commandments, the likelihood is that he already thought he’d done enough to earn his way into heaven. Was he asking just to be sure? Or to get a nice pat on the back from the traveling Rabbi? Or was it yet another trick question, and had the young man been put up to it by the Pharisees? We don’t know.

But what we do have is Jesus’ answer. He loves the young man, but takes his question at face value. You want to guarantee yourself a place in heaven? Well, the price is more than you thought. In fact, it’s more than the law demands. Jewish law had plenty in it that encouraged, even demanded generosity but it didn’t ask people to give everything. What Jesus is saying is that getting a place in heaven isn’t something that is a matter of dotting every i and crossing every t. You can’t get to heaven by keeping your nose clean and obeying the law. He deliberately asks what feels unreasonable and unjustifiable because getting a place into heaven isn’t about reason and justice, it’s about the generosity and mercy and grace of God.

That’s why Jesus’ response to the young man only makes sense in the light of what he goes on to say to the disciples: all things are possible with God. We don’t know what became of the young man. We hope that he reflected on his wealth, and learned how to be generous, to exercise good stewardship over this possessions, to sit more lightly to them, to use them for good. But like so many of the walk-on characters in the gospels, as far as we know we never see him again.

But that’s not the end of the story. Not for him, and not for us. Because a young man who thinks he’s done everything right is like a red rag to a bull for Jesus.  Even though the young man is probably a very nice chap, his attitude is that of a pharisee-in-the-making: he thinks everything is about keeping the law, and that if he tries really hard and ticks all the right boxes, he’ll be OK. That’s how the Pharisees knew were they were in the religious and social pecking order. That’s how they could be confident about their status before the people and before God.  But that wasn’t how Jesus saw them.

The reading ends with ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’. If this is a parable about the relationship between our earthly life and the life of heaven, then I’m strangely comforted by it. The rich young man, by the miraculous grace and mercy of God, may well find himself in heaven when he dies. But he’ll find himself there not at the head of the queue, having earned his place, but somewhere in the crowd, perhaps towards the back, with the poor and destitute going in ahead of him.  And that is the real test for him.  When he sees that his place in the earthly pecking order doesn’t translate into the life of heaven, will he still want that eternal life that he was pestering Jesus about? That’s Jesus’ test. And it’s a test to any of us who have things that we cling to here, any of us who have ideas about our status, our importance.  Any of us who fall into the trap of trying to earn our way into God’s favour.

Eternal life, a place in heaven, involves being willing to relinquish any kind of status, either in terms of what we’re born into, or what we’ve earned. Quite simply, we can’t take it with us. If there’s a hierarchy in heaven at all, Jesus is quite clear on how it goes: the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  We may read this story and imagine that the young man’s moment of choice was in his conversation with Jesus: will he give everything away to buy his way into heaven or won’t he?  But in reality the man’s true moment of choice comes much later. When the time comes for him to find out if he made the cut, if he was good enough, if he really did earn his place, he’ll find that God isn’t sitting in state like a judge at all, but instead is welcoming all and sundry, including the unwashed, the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes, the lowly, the poor and the lame.  Does the young man want to join the queue behind them in order to receive the mercy that God is offering so freely?  That’s the real test of whether he’s willing to give up everything.

But, you know, it wouldn’t do him any harm to start practicing while he’s still alive.

Amen.