Sunday, 25 September 2016

A time to mourn...



... a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Ecclesiastes 3:4

Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn. Matthew 5:4

It’s hard to visit Auschwitz without ending up pretty solemn. And rightly so, of course. 

It’s a terrible place - this place where the Nazis put into action their plan to rid Europe of the Jewish people. A place of - what words remotely describe it? - mass murder, genocide, killing on an industrial scale. A place of cruelty beyond imagination. A place revealing human nature at its most depraved. A place of infinite, almost tangible, sadness. 

A place where, if my brief experience is anything to go by, you keep finding yourself shaking your head with sheer disbelief as you move about and try to take it in. How could such things be?

The adjoining concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau are still there, but standing now as a sombre museum to remind the world of things that must never be forgotten.

Nina and I were in the beautiful nearby Polish town of Krakow earlier this week, and though a visit to Auschwitz could hardly be described as “something to look forward to” when you’re on holiday, it seemed unthinkable not to take the opportunity of a visit.

I’m so glad we did. In a sense, there was little new to learn - since childhood we have been familiar with those grainy black-and-white photos of human beings, mainly Jews but not exclusively so, being herded like cattle onto trains, or into massively overcrowded barrack blocks. Or, of course, into gas chambers. 

But it was good to be there, to sense the atmosphere, to try to imagine these places as seething hubs of activity and noise, of life and death.

Two Bible passages came to mind.

The writer of Ecclesiastes 3 reflects on the immense variety of life, and in verse 4 especially on the opposites, weeping-and-mourning and laughing-and-dancing.

How good it is to laugh! Laughter surely is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity; there’s something seriously wrong if you are unable to laugh. But there’s something seriously wrong also if you are unable to grieve, weep, and mourn. And this is reflected in Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.

The word “mourn” has rather lost its meaning in today’s world. We tend to associate it exclusively with the time death visits us as individuals and families: “mourners” are people attending a funeral.

But that, I think, is only a tiny part of what Jesus meant. “Those who mourn” are, first, people so acutely aware of their own sins and failings in the sight of God that they can pray from the heart, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). 

And they are also, second, those with a sense of the immeasurable sadness and misery of so many people in our troubled world - those who have something of the heart of Jesus as, looking at the helpless crowds, he was “moved with compassion” (Mark 8:2) . 

I think there would be something very wrong with us if we could visit a place like Auschwitz and not be led to mourn in both those senses. “Yes,” we can say to ourselves, “I too am a sinner, capable of horrible thoughts, words and deeds, even if I have never expressed them in such an extreme form.”

And “Yes, I too need the soft and tender heart of Jesus to feel for those who suffer all around me - whether people in my own little circle, or the sad souls I see daily on the television news.”

We live in a society that loves to laugh. And what’s wrong with that? But there are times too when it’s important to have the laugh wiped off our silly, shallow faces, and to face up to the brute truth about ourselves and our world.

Well, I don’t remember seeing many smiles on the faces of the groups being shepherded around Auschwitz last week. All right, the smiles were no doubt back a few hours later in the lovely bustle of Krakow’s market square. But I dare to hope that everyone who shared that experience - certainly me, anyway - ends up a better, deeper person as a result.

There are times when it’s no bad thing to have the laugh wiped off our faces.

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Amen. (Psalm 51)

And here is a beautiful prayer by Graham Kendrick...

Soften my heart, Lord,/ Soften my heart./ From all indifference/ Set me apart,/ To feel your compassion,/ To weep with your tears;/ Come soften my heart, O Lord,/ Soften my heart. Amen.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Suffering for Jesus' sake

Now, I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. Colossians 1:24.

There are times when, reading the Bible, I wish the writer was sitting opposite me in an armchair. We would both have a mug of coffee (plus a plate of biscuits), and I would be able to ask him whatever I wanted about what he wrote.

Regarding Paul’s words above I would start: “Paul, I really do love your letter to the church in Colosse, but I have to admit that this verse really has me baffled. You talk about ‘what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions’.

“But how can there possibly be anything ‘lacking in Christ’s afflictions’! And how can you possibly be ‘filling it up in your flesh’? Surely Christ’s cross, after his life of suffering, was enough? Can you, or any of us, really be needed to somehow complete what Jesus did in dying for our sins? Surely not!”

I’m pretty sure that his reply would begin something like: “Now, Colin, don’t worry! Of course I’m not saying that. When Jesus died on the cross, that was a complete and perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world – there’s absolutely no way I or you or anyone can possibly add to it. Relax!

“No. What I meant was…”

And this is where it gets tricky. I’m really not sure what he would say next.

What is clear is that he is talking about suffering for the sake of Jesus and the church. The start of the verse is plain enough: “I rejoice in what was suffered for you…” Paul was writing to the Colossian church from a prison cell – in other words, he was suffering for his work as an apostle. And he says that that doesn’t bother him in the least – indeed, he actually rejoices in these sufferings; he regards them as a privilege.

So far, so good. But now comes the puzzling part – the bit about “filling up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions”. What can that possibly mean?

There are two main possibilities.

First, is he saying: “Christ’s ministry involves great suffering, and because I, as a believer in him, am actually ‘in’ Christ, therefore my sufferings become part of Christ’s ongoing suffering”? In other words: “I don’t claim to be adding to the work which Christ completed perfectly on the cross, but I do believe that suffering for his sake means sharing in his suffering”. Yes? Something like that, perhaps.

Or, second, perhaps he is saying (if I may be allowed to borrow the words of a modern writer): “There is a ‘quota’ of sufferings which ‘the corporate Christ’, the Messianic community, the Church, is destined to undergo before the purposes of God are complete. Accordingly, the more the apostle suffers in the cause of Christ and in the course of his ministry, the greater is his contribution to the coming of the End…” (You might need to read that again, but I think it’s worth it!)

The Jews of Paul’s day believed in what they sometimes called “the birth-pangs of the Messiah” – sufferings which had to be fulfilled before the kingdom of God could fully come, or be “born”. And the church, today as well as in the early years, has a part to play in this.

Perhaps the truth lies in a combination of those two possibilities. (More coffee, Paul?)

But however unsure we may be about the precise meaning intended, one thing comes across very clearly: suffering endured for the sake of Jesus, and for his glory, is a positive and powerful thing. For most of us, it’s very hard to actively welcome suffering, as Paul clearly did: but the great truth is that it can be made holy, or sanctified.

Here’s something else that strikes me.

Paul was writing about things he had suffered specifically because he was a Christian and an apostle. But is there any reason why the same thing shouldn’t apply also to any “afflictions” borne in the spirit of Jesus – misfortunes, disappointments, sicknesses, disasters, the everyday troubles of life. I have certainly known Christian people suffering all sorts of troubles with such Christlike dignity that it has been truly beautiful.

So I have learned that, if we can find it in ourselves to pray a prayer such as the one below, a real negative can be turned into a positive, a real bad can be transformed into a true good.

Lord, you know the afflictions of my life. They bring me much hurt and pain. But I offer them to you now, just as Jesus offered to you the sufferings of the cross, and ask that you will take them, use them for good in this world, and glorify yourself through them. Amen.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

A Job for life



In the land of Uz there lived a man called Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil... 

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head... 

Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job 1:1, 2:7, 3:1

I must confess my heart sank... 

I am presently using a “through the Bible in a year” Bible, which means having to read lengthy passages every day. And my heart sank when I saw that next up was Job. I realised that I would be spending the next week or two ploughing my way through this strange, ancient text.

Well, I’m getting towards the end now - and feeling ashamed of my initial negative reaction. Yes, Job is a very long book; yes, it’s got all those big speeches; yes, it’s puzzling in places. But it certainly makes you think, and it certainly engages your emotions. I’m sure it’s done me good. The Holy Spirit didn’t make a mistake when he caused it to be included in our Bibles!

Before you read a book - any book, not just a Bible book - you need to understand what kind of book it is. You don’t read a novel the same way you read a car maintenance manual, or a poetry book the same way you read the telephone directory. (Well, I hope you don’t, anyway.)

So - what kind of book is Job? Is it fact or fiction? Is it history or parable? Or something else?

To me it reads like an ancient tale, based on the life of a figure now lost in the mists of time, which someone has worked up into a kind of dramatic poem. You could say it’s a bit like the Robin Hood story: no doubt there was a real human being called Robin Hood who became famous for “robbing the rich to give to the poor”. But pinning him down precisely is impossible.

Job barely figures elsewhere in the Bible. Ezekiel mentions him twice, in the company of Noah and Daniel (Ezekiel 14), and in the New Testament James famously praises his “patience” (James 5). But we know virtually nothing about him. He lived “in the land of Uz”, or Edom (1:1); he lived “among the people of the east” (1:3). He seems to know the God of Israel, but I don’t think he was actually an Israelite. 

He is a mystery man with a mystery background. His book certainly doesn’t belong with the main history books, like Joshua, Kings or Chronicles.

But this very fact is significant - it makes him a universal figure: he could be anybody living anywhere. He could be you; he could be me.

What can we as Christians draw from this book? I suggest three things...

First, bad things don’t happen to people as a punishment for bad behaviour - one of the ideas expressed by Job’s so-called “comforters”. Job was a good man, “blameless and upright”; yet God allowed him to suffer terribly. Even today you sometimes hear people say, as they try to come to terms with misfortune, “I must have done something awful!” But no! Go back, please, to the words of Jesus in John 9:1-3 or Luke 13:1-5.

Is this a word for you today?

Second, it’s not wrong to question God, even to argue with him. Job refuses to accept the trite words and stock arguments of his comforters. He insists that God “has denied me justice” (27:2). He virtually accuses God: “I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me” (30:20).

It’s true that at the end of the book God rather puts Job in his place - but not half as much as he does Job’s comforters!

God is to be respected and revered: yes, of course. But he understands and responds to those who cry out to him in anguish of heart, even if their words sometimes seem daringly bold.

Are you in need of a serious unburdening session with God? Do it!

Third, every story of godly people has a happy ending: “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first” (42:12). True, nothing could ever make up for the terrible suffering earlier on, especially the deaths of his children. But the fact is that God sees fit to bless his honest, argumentative, stubborn, fiery child after all the suffering is over. And so he will with us, even if not always in this life, if we remain faithful and true.

Job didn’t know Jesus in the way we do, yet even in the very depths of his pain he had glimpses of this great hope: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God...” (19:25-26).

May those defiant, majestic words inspire anyone reading this who is struggling with pain, suffering and injustice.  Amen!

Lord God, have mercy today on every Job known to me - and indeed upon every Job throughout this broken, hurting world. Amen.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

God's re-set button



Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to his family property... Leviticus 25:10

We’re all familiar with the word “jubilee”. It means a celebration of an anniversary, especially a fiftieth anniversary. But do you know where it comes from?

Well, here it is, tucked away in Leviticus 25. It is probably derived from the Hebrew word yobel (or jobel), meaning a ram’s horn or trumpet, because this very special year was introduced by a trumpet blast, blown throughout Israel in the seventh month.

God seems to like sevens. Every seventh day was a sabbath, a day of rest. Every seventh year was a “sabbath year”, when the ground lay fallow and also enjoyed a rest. And every seven-times-seventh year (that’s every forty-ninth year, if your arithmetic’s a bit rusty) introduced this specially special year, the year of jubilee.

So... what actually happened during the jubilee year?

The straight answer, I’m afraid, would seem to be: not a lot, actually! 

There is no record of the year of jubilee ever being observed throughout Israel’s history. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t - perhaps it was, but just didn’t get mentioned. (For what’s it’s worth, neither is there any record of the annual Day of Atonement being observed.)

Whatever... the rules laid down in Leviticus 25 stand as a kind of ideal - you might even say that as Christians we are awaiting the jubilee-to-end-all-jubilees when Jesus returns. 

In essence, this year was intended as a national wiping clean of the slate - or, if you like, the pressing of a re-set button. 

Two great events were envisaged: first, all land would be returned to its original, ancestral owners; second, all slaves would be set free and given the means to start a new life.

Put as simply as that (there was, of course, more detail) it’s clear that the year of jubilee marked a radical social revolution (perhaps that’s why it never actually happened, if that is indeed the case!). 

The crude illustration that comes to my mind is those occasions when you take a deep breath and set about clearing out a load of junk that has accumulated over the years. Oh the bliss! the sense of cleansing! the feel of making a new start!

The effect of the jubilee legislation would have been twofold.

First, it would be impossible for any person or family to become, if you’ll pardon the expression, filthy rich. 

Wealth in ancient Israel was measured not so much in money in the bank (after all, there were no such things as banks) as in land possessed. If you had a lot of money, certainly you could buy land. But you knew, when you did so, that it would only be yours until the next jubilee year; as we would say today, you had it on lease-hold rather than free-hold.

Putting it another way, in every generation there would be a levelling out of prosperity, and an opportunity for those who had fallen foul of the system to get going again.

Second, it would be impossible for any person or family to be perpetual slaves. 

Slavery within Israel generally arose because somebody whose life had taken a down-turn was forced to sell themselves to a richer person in order to survive. They too would have the opportunity to get their life up and running again.

Sounds radical? Yes, because to our modern, and especially western eyes, it is radical! Think what this would mean, for example, to those born into the Dalit class (“Untouchables”) in India, and who are thus condemned to a life of humiliation and servitude... Or to parents who are forced to leave home for months or years at a time in order to find work to support their families, thus losing contact with growing children... Slavery, sadly, is still a shocking reality in our modern world.

Well, it’s not going to happen, is it? So why bother with these ancient laws?

The answer is that, if nothing else, it gives us an insight into the mind of God, and the kind of society he regards as just and healthy. (He isn’t only concerned about the salvation of individual souls!)

The prophet Micah looked for a day when “every man would sit under his own vine and under his own fig-tree” (Micah 4:4). Beautiful! Isn’t that a jubilee vision? The Psalmist tells us that, ultimately, “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). Isn’t that too? The prophet Isaiah rails against those who “add house to house and join field to field, till no space is left” (Isaiah 5:8). And that?

Jesus told the story of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), and warned of how hard (all right, hard, not impossible!) it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:23). Isn’t that a jubilee sentiment? Indeed, when he teaches us to pray that God’s kingdom may come and his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), isn’t that a Jubilee sentiment? I could go on...

Ultimately, it’s about fairness and justice for all. God cares about these things. Shouldn’t we too?

Father in heaven, as I look at the cruelties and injustices of the world we have created, help me to see it through your loving and compassionate eyes, and to do whatever is in my power to put it right. Amen.

The Jubilee Centre is a Christian charity that aims to bring a biblical bearing to social and economic issues. Why not look them up at www.jubilee-centre.org?