Monday, 3 December 2018

A Wedding Sermon on Soul Mates


Readings from Richard Bach, A Bride Across Forever and 1 Corinthians 13.

M and F, my research leave meant that I got to know you less well than I would have liked. Please accept my apologies in advance if I’ve got the wrong impression of you.
F – I think of you as in charge of the picture-perfect wedding. I relate to that. Not because I made sure that ours was a picture-perfect wedding. I didn’t. I won’t say more about that. It’s been over 25 years ago and I have been forgiven. But I am a perfectionist. I want things to be just right. Being a perfectionist has its good uses but it can be a real threat to any relationship. Love is patient, love is kind... it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
M – I see you as a man of patience and peace. I suspect that you don’t get easily upset; you’re prepared to give way. I can relate to that. People often see me as a man of patience and peace. But in my case the appearance does not always match the reality. And I sometimes forget that peace is an active thing. It’s not sitting back, avoiding confrontation. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. It is an active force.
True, patient, persevering love is what makes a marriage perfect. How do you find true love? Now, you may well think that is an odd question to ask on a wedding day. You have found your true love!
On the first of December my true love gave to me
seven bridesmaids, six usherers, five flower girls – two page boys,
two best men each with a ring to bring
and a still and a rolling camera.
If that’s not true love...
Seriously. Our first reading gave us a glimpse of what true love should give us:
keys to fill our locks.
When we feel safe enough to open the locks,
 our truest selves step out
and we can be completely and honestly who we are;
we can be loved for who we are
and not for who we’re pretending to be.
This is the enchanting part of the story that Dick Bach tells. The Bridge Across Forever: (subtitled: A Love Story) was published in 1984 and is based on his real-life relationship with actor Leslie Parrish whom he had married a few years before that. The couple were also the main characters of his next book, One: A Novel, published in 88. In the late 90s they divorced.
Fans were devastated to discover that this match made in heaven didn't manage to stick. But maybe they should not have been surprised. In 1970 Bach had divorced from his first wife – with whom he had six children which he abandoned along with his wife – on the grounds that he did not believe in marriage.
After his break-up with Leslie Parrish, he explained that lovers don't have to stay married forever in order to be lifetime soul mates.
I don’t know whether Bach thought of his third wife as another soul mate or whether it was a case of “Look, you’re not my soul mate – that’s wife number two – but you’re the one with whom I want to spend my old age.”
Bach didn’t just have a wrong idea about marriage. He also had the wrong idea about soul mates. So let me tell you the truth – as my wedding present to you. In a nutshell: You don’t find a soul mate. You become a soul mate.
If you fall for that lie that soul mates is about finding the perfect fit for you, there is a very high risk that further down the road you end up discovering that you have married the wrong person and that your real soul mate is this new colleague at work or this old school friend with whom you have reconnected. And of course that won’t be true either.
You don’t find a soul mate. You become a soul mate. It is a vocation; it is a commitment; it is something you need to work on day after day and year after year.
Love ... does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking. Love is becoming a safe space for someone else:
When we feel safe enough to open the locks,
 our truest selves step out
and we can be completely and honestly who we are;
we can be loved for who we are
and not for who we’re pretending to be.
This is about who we are at the core of our being. Such love will overspill in hospitality. Friends outside your marriage will also be able to be more honestly themselves in your presence if you have love with integrity of the sort that creates that safe space within your marriage.  If you try to create your own little paradise just for yourselves, you’re walking away from love. Love ... is not self-seeking.
But the marriage is a unique, exclusive relation­ship, the place where a man and a woman are fully naked with each other. Shedding your clothes is the easy bit, baring your soul can be a lot harder.
Naked in body and soul we are vulnerable. This is why God tells us that fullest intimacy belongs inside marriage. What difference does marriage make? Marriage is meant to help define that safe space in which you can be truly who you are without getting hurt.
How is marriage meant to do that? Through the vows you make to each other in public. In effect, you commit to being a soul mate. This is the critical point. Being soul mates is not about perfect chemistry between two people, it is not about always being on the same wavelength, about feeling and thinking the same, pursuing the same goals.
Being a soul mate is about commitment.
·         I am there for you – whatever life will throw up.
·         I am for you – whoever you truly are.
I wish someone had told me more clearly when I got married that in ten years time I would be married to a different person.
I am now more than twice the age I was when I got married. The man to whom my wife is married today is not the same who looked at her adoringly in 1992.  And it’s not just the grey hairs...My wife, too, has changed – a great deal.
The thing is, if you believe that today you marry the perfect person, any change in that person is going to be a threat. And if you were to believe that being soul mates is about being perfect for each other, then you may well no longer think of your spouse as a soul mate when they change.
Then the critical question for true love will not be “Is my partner still my soul mate?” but “Am I still a soul mate, a safe space? Do I live by the promises I have made?
Will I actively pursue peace, even when things are not perfect?
Love never fails. This is both a challenge and a promise.
We are not called to be perfectionists, we are called to be perfect. Perfectionists try to make things perfect. But it is not the wedding day that has to be perfect or the time when you have children, it is you who have to be perfect.
Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect, says Jesus in his famous Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5:48).
What he means is this: that our love must not be limited to those with whom we get on, those who are on our wavelength. Our love, that is our practical action in seeking the good of others, must embrace those from whom we are estranged and those who are hostile to us.
And I’m afraid there are likely occasions in a married life, when this becomes relevant – when your spouse feels like a stranger or even when you perceive them, rightly or wrongly, as hostile towards you. Then you must love. Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).
How do you find true love?
Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Or, as we find it in the Gospel according to Luke (6:36), Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
God alone always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres - his Love never fails. This is why he came to us in Jesus Christ who is ‘The bridge across forever’.
He is the one who loved those who are his so much that he laid down his life for them. He loved us when we were still estranged from him, he loved us after we had messed up He loved us with a love that made us right again and ready to come into God’s presence, the presence of love.
As you grow to maturity in love for another, may you also come to know God’s love for you in ever deeper ways. Amen.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Zephaniah - The End

An eight-week sermon series on Zephaniah has come to its end. Here are some notes for a sermon from the final three verses of the book on the final Sunday of the church year: Christ the King..

When were you most happy during the past week? Did your moments of joy include times of celebrating what God has done for us? Last week we spoke about the command to rejoice  (Zephaniah 3:14-17).

Here is the reason for our joy in a nutshell: The king of Israel, the LORD, is in our midst. The church year tells us how this happened:

  • we long for God’s coming in Advent;
  • at Christmas we marvel at God taking on human flesh and being born a baby
  • we continue the celebration during Epiphany as God is revealed to us in Christ
  • we follow the journey of his earthly life and suffering through Lent and then Passion Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday: the king is crowned on the cross but dead.
  • but on the third day, Easter Day, he rose again, having conquered death.
  • Christ’s ascension is the glorious climax of this journey: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," says Christ
  • and on Pentecost he pours out God’s Holy Spirit on his people to equip them for this time of implementing God’s rule in Christ.
  • Trinity Sunday reminds us that the three are one: God’s kingly rule is in the hands of Christ and implemented by the Holy Spirit.
  • We call the Sundays following Trinity Sunday “ordinary time” – our time of growth...
  • ...and we conclude the church year reflecting on what has been accomplished already through All the Saints
  • and on how it will end: all will bow down and acknowledge Christ as king.

we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. For it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God." (Romans 14:10c-11)
God ... gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
Christ is the way in which The LORD, our God, is in our midst, a warrior who gives victory. This is why he is called Jesus – Saviour, the one who gives victory to his people, Immanuel – God with us, and Christ – the anointed one, i.e. God’s priest-king. We must find moments in our week during which we consciously dwell in that joy and somehow express it.

Now we come to the final three verses of the book. Verse 18 is extremely difficult to translate. In the NRSV footnotes you read “meaning of Hebrew uncertain” for the first line for which the NRSV follows the ancient Greek and Syriac translations rather than the Hebrew text. The next line has a footnote with the abbreviation “Cn” which means “Correction.” In other words, the translators think that the text we have in ancient and medieval manuscripts does not make sense at all and so, assuming that when the text was written it did make sense, they have followed a best guess as to what might have stood in the text originally. Because I am so bold – or foolish – as to try and make sense of the Hebrew text which we have, my translation ends up very different from the one in our NRSV Bibles. But let us ignore this for the moment. If the NRSV is right, we will not thereby lose much because in the NRSV the verse merely amplifies the basic ideas found elsewhere in the text. If I am right, the verse amplifies things said elsewhere in the book - see below.

So let’s go to verse 19. Note 3x “I will” – God is in charge. This is one thing it means to celebrate Christ the King. Right through suffering and death and then resurrection life: God is in charge. It is very much at the heart of the message conveyed in the book of Zephaniah.
  • God is in charge of dealing with the present, bringing liberation from oppressors.
  • God is in charge of dealing with the past, bringing healing and restoration for the hurts of the past.
  • God is in charge of the future: he does more than a repair job, more than bringing things back to how they used to be; he brings glory.
If there is no liberation, God is not yet king.
If there is no healing and restoration, God is not yet king.
If there is only repair, God is not yet king.

Now, there is a sense in which God’s kingship will indeed be fully implemented only in the future when
  • all enemies are completely disarmed,
  • we see God face to face, fully healed, and
  • his and our reputation is unsullied.
But we would have little reason to believe this is ever going to happen, if we did not see it being implemented at least in a preliminary way even now. If you see no signs of this liberation and healing in your life, chances are that you are not living under Christ’s rule. If we see no signs of this liberation and healing in the life of this church, chances are that we are not living under Christ’s rule.

So what does it look like when God is in charge?

(1) We have enemies but they are no longer allowed to oppress us.Are we mindful of having enemies? At each baptism service we address those to be baptised with the words: Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life. The church here on earth is involved in a struggle against forces within us (sin), pressures around us (world) and non-material personal forces (devil). But none of these are allowed to dominate us.
[Christ] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. (Colossians 2:15) 
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:6) 
I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. (1 John 2:14c)
We are no longer in bondage to sin, the world and the devil; we can no longer be accused before God. We owe no loyalty to forces that stand against God. All those who are loyal to Christ are in a battle but there is an end to oppression; we cannot be dominated by anti-God forces.

(2) Is there healing and restoration?
The prophecy speaks metaphorically about the lame and the outcast - those who have been injured by evil and driven away from God's presence in Jerusalem.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13) 
He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24)
Not fully healed, to be sure, but "free from sins" and no longer separated from God we are in the process of being put right again.

(3) Are we on the road from shame to fame, renown and praise?
NB: verse 20 reads literally “I will make you fame and praise” and leaves it open whether this means “make you famous and praised” (cf. NRSV) or maybe “make you my fame and praise” because God is of course the actor here - He restores. Cf.
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God. (Luke 18:43) 
When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. (Acts 19:17)
As we are transformed from shame to praiseworthy, God gets the praise! There are several reasons why this may be less obvious. We may be prevented from seeing or hearing about it because God knows that it would destroy our humility and thus us. Or it may not as readily obvious because we are good at hiding our shame and so our transformation. Nevertheless, someone who lives under the rule of Christ cannot but be transformed for the better and this will not remain altogether hidden, as we become people on fire with love for God and neighbour.

How might all this happen? It is of course God’s work, not something we can do. Verse 18 – in my translation – my offer some hints and in any case allows me to sum up Zephaniah.
Those afflicted on account of the appointment I have removed from you,
they were an offering, upon her a reproach.
Zephaniah's main message is to announce an appointment God has with the whole world (region), with Jerusalem in particular and specifically with the ruling elites - they are those afflicted on account of the appointment. Three things are being said about them here.

(1) God has removed them from his people. God’s judgement is a gathering up and removing of evil from us. Note the use of the same Hebrew verb in 1:2 and 3:8.God's judgement is about separating good and evil.

(2) They were an offering to God, or a tribute gift or, in the language of 1:7, a sacrifice. Everything belongs to God and so the separation is between those who in humility give themselves as a willing, lively sacrifice to God's service in response to his loving call (cf. Romans 12:1) and those whose proud defiance cannot negate that they too are God's property and claimed by him - however unsuitable as a sacrifice or tribute.

(3) They have brought disgrace upon the entity God has chosen. The “her” refers to Jerusalem as an inter-generational entity. God will remove any stain or blemish from the church, the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:27).

Dare we pray for God’s purifying judgement? Dare we pray that he removes from us  “disaster” (NRSV) – namely everything that hinders God’s rule and our relationship with him, our pride? And do we ask for the joy which will inspire us and help us implement Christ’s rule?

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Really Useful Guide on Psalms


The Bible Reading Fellowship has begun to publish a series of what they hope will be compact accessible guides to books of the Bible. The books are about the size of my palm and small finger and at just over 100 pages suitable also for people who are not in the habit of devouring books.

The volume on the Psalms is the first Old Testament title in the ‘Really Useful Guides’ series and written by the OT series editor, Simon Stocks, Tutor for Biblical Studies and Director of Reader Training at St Augustine's College of Theology. It opens with the author’s admission that he was less than excited about the Psalms when he first started reading the Bible systematically.
      The personal reflection on Why read the psalms? reveals that the breakthrough came when he realised that the psalms are not meant to be read like other parts of the Bible. They need to be savoured like an espresso rather than drunk like an Americano. 
      This is followed by an overview (What is the Book of Psalms?) which assumes next to no prior knowledge. Stocks even briefly explains who King David was. After that we come to a longer chapter: What do the psalms say? Here it is in a nutshell:
(1) The Lord God created everything and therefore rules over it with good will...(2) choosing Israel as a particular sign of that rule and good will...(3) using human kings as a manifestation of that rule and good will...(4) and bringing about justice in human affairs by the defeat of evil.
Different psalms emphasise one aspect more than the other but together they help keep memory alive (the Lord has ruled in righteousness), keep faith alive (the Lord rules in faithfulness), and keep hope alive (the Lord will ever rule in triumph).
The identification of God’s faithful, good rule over his people as the core motif of the Psalms is not very controversial and offers a good backbone, holding together the flesh of the individual psalms.
The psalms are songs and poems that follow the literary conventions of another culture. Chapter 4 (How do they say it?) explores poetic style, focusing on aspects which translate into English, imagery and idiom. It also teases out the importance of force and feelings as the currency in which the psalms deal more than brute facts.  
Chapter 5 (What was going on at the time?) gives a bit of history and information about people and places. Again, the author is careful not to assume biblical literacy but to promote it and to do so without overloading readers.
The psalms, like the songs in our hymn book, were not written to be used once only, even if some of them were originally tailor-made for a specific situation. Chapter 6, Reading the Psalms today, offers good suggestions. Stocks is sensitive to our Christian context but I would have liked to see a greater focus on Christ as the one to whom many of the psalms apply before they apply to us.
The five specific examples discussed in chapter 7 are Psalms 13, 30, 48, 58, and 67. There are wise words on some of the difficult aspects of these psalms. More could have been said about praying the psalms as intercession for others but the symbolic reading of ‘Jerusalem’ (Psalm 48) goes some way towards addressing my concern about reading the Psalms in relation to Christ (including his body, the church).
A few pages on famous openings of psalms (22, 122, 130) is an unexpected way by which to open a window to the use of the psalms across millennia. It is followed by a final page of questions for reflection and discussion.
This is a very accessible book, laid out in an easy-to-read format. The author manages to pack in a lot of information in a short space and to teach the nuts and bolts without being patronising and without shying away from the difficult bits. I commend it to you as a genuinely useful guide to the Psalms. You should find plenty to learn.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Zephaniah on Remembrance Sunday

I am going through Zephaniah in an eight-week sermon series which includes Bible Sunday, All Saints Sunday and Remembrance Day. Here are some notes for a sermon from Zephaniah 3:6-13 on Remembrance Sunday.

Is there such a thing as “a good war”?
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
– T.S. Eliot, East Coker IV, Four Quartets
Why do we call Good Friday good? Its central act was bloody, brutal, horrific, sheer evil. How can this day be good?

(1) Christ’s self-sacrifice reveals the depths of God’s love for us in the midst of horror and brutality...It’s not a “God is love and therefore everyone and everything is just fine as it is” platitude we’re given on Good Friday but the assurance that even a frontal attack on God himself cannot extinguish the love with which he pursues us. Cf. John 15.

(2) Christ’s death has a good outcome, leading to resurrection. Good Friday is good because of what happened as a result – people are reconciled with God and the way to life beyond death is opened for us. This ensures that the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are realistic.

In what ways could we have a “good war”?
(1) There are virtues (as well as vices) on display in war: loyalty, friendship, self-sacrifice, endurance, courage. We do not celebrate WW1 or any other war. But we honour and acknowledge the good that was found in the trenches - on both sides - amidst the horror and evil.

(2) We do not celebrate the war itself but we acknowledge with gratitude the good that was preserved and the good that came in its wake.

Zephaniah was predicting war, a shake up of the socio-economic system. I have preferred previously to Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (2017). He observes that in England the richest 1% owned 70% of all private wealth just before WW1. Mass-mobilization warfare was a catalyst for greater equality and social solidarity, democratisation (extension of franchise to women) and greater power for workers through unions after WW1, the NHS after WW2. There is arguably good for which the wars have been a catalyst.

Zephaniah 3:6-7 offers two daring thoughts: 
(1) God himself wages war.
(2) God deliberates and seems disappointed.
Both are poetic pictures that could be misunderstood.
(1) God does not literally engage in war as an actor alongside other actors. He neither engages physically in combat, nor gives orders supporting one side of the war.
(2) God cannot be taken by surprise and having read the previous two chapters we know that the prophet, too, was under no illusions about the possibility of disaster being averted.
So why speak in these ways? As for (1), there are specific reasons for highlighting divine involvement in sixth century BC events and there is the general observation that if God is Almighty he cannot not be involved. There are other parts of Scripture more useful to explore the nature of God's involvement in war, here it is sufficient to say that God is not uninvolved.
As for (2), this is a a way of highlighting what would be reasonable and logical. If you find yourself on a road that leads to death and disaster and you notice things beginning to disintegrate, you stop, turn around and come back to the source of life and justice. Everything else does not make sense. Alas, God knows, as do modern psychologists (cf. Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind) that we human beings are not nearly as empirical and logical, as we would like to think.

Verse 8 reiterates and sums up the comprehensive and total war the seventh-century BC prophet foresaw for his people and region. But what is the point? If  the beginnings of war have not produced a change of mind, what good is "a great war" going to be?

Verses 9-11 offer a glimpse. “Surely then” – the destruction of pride and arrogance, the failure of ideologies, the demolition of objects of trust and dependence which compete with the one who alone should be our sure trust and defence, prepares the ground for a big “change” (v. 9, note that the Hebrew word is elsewhere used for overthrowing soemthing, suggesting that an overturning is needed, not merely a gift of pure speech).

Why the emphasis on the purification of speech (mentioned first and picked up later in "will not tell lies" and "no deceitful tongue will be found in their mouths" said about the remnant)?

One reasons is that truthful speech about God is essential for people to come to know God and so call on his name and seek refuge in the name of the LORD (vv. 9, 12), cf. the false speech in 2:8, 10.

Also, fake news foster enmity and unity is the other emphasis ("so that all of them...with one accord") with even distant nations bringing tribute to God, acknowledging him as sovereign. Only then will swords be turned into ploughshares. This promise has not (yet) been comprehensively fulfilled but in Christ God made himself more fully known and draws people from all nations together. 

Experience of war can play a role in this. “For God and country” - the motto of many military regiments and other institutions on different sides of conflict - at its best can be a reminder of our responsibilities beyond the immediate family, but at its worst has been used to co-opt God for our agendas. Maybe one good thing of two world wars is that such partisan claims to divine support have become less credible to us and this can spur us on to a deeper understanding of who God truly is.

We have more recently also experienced renewed prosperity and with it a turning away from God as well as rising inequality...But even long after an armistice, a war can bear good fruit, if our remembrance inspires us to seek God, to seek justice and humility (cf. 2:1-3).

It does not happen automatically. In the first few years after the armistice of 1918 there was pride on the one side and humiliation on the other side. The Great War seemed a “good war” for Britain and others, a bad one for Germany and others. In reality, "the war to end all wars" was nothing of the sort and a bad war on both sides because out of pride and humiliation grew the next war.

God’s purposes are different. “On that day you shall not be disgraced because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me...I will remove from your midst those of you who are exulting with pride.”

In God’s kingdom there is no place for humiliation and disgrace, nor for pride and boasting.
Why this is so we see in the cross of Christ. We come to the cross as those who receive a gift.

Pride is a failure to acknowledge that all good gifts come from above, that we depend on God for absolutely everything. If we are better than others. If we recognise and speak the truth, if we do not commit wrong, if we love our neighbour and seek their best, it is by God’s grace. If we look down on others we thereby prove that we are not in fact better than them.

Humility is the right stance towards God. And it is very different from being humiliated – or even from putting ourselves down. Holding on to our shame is as much a denial of God’s grace as is pride. The gift we receive as we come to the cross is forgiveness – so that our past need not shape our future.

Pride and humiliation drive us away from God and pull us apart from each other. God’s burning anger which is his firm opposition to our pride and humiliation is our salvation. God takes us out of the cycle of recrimination and violence, reconciles us to himself and allows us to see ourselves and the other in a different light.

May we receive the gift of knowing God for who he truly is and to seek him and his kingdom and so come to the peace and security that is ours in Christ.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Zephaniah on All Saints Sunday

I am going through Zephaniah in an eight-week sermon series which includes Bible Sunday, All Saints Sunday and Remembrance Day. Here are some notes for a sermon from Zephaniah 3:1-5 on All Saints Sunday.

Why All Saints? Are not all the baptised “saints” – set apart for God? Does the separation of All Souls from All Saints suggest that something has gone wrong? Let us begin to explore this by paying attention to the translation of verse 1.

“Ah, distinguished and ransomed, the city, the dove” – this, translated into English, is how someone in antiquity rendered the Hebrew text into Greek. Spot the difference to NRSV (“Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city!”). What is going on? The poet used three Hebrew words that can be understood in very different ways.

The city that should be distinguished in revealing the ways of God has become rebellious against him (as I would render it) – or soiled, as the NRSV interprets it.

The city that has been ransomed, redeemed for God’s purposes has become defiled – a city like any other.

The city is meant to be a dove, a term of endearment in the Song of Songs (2:14; 5:2; 6:9), maybe evoking freedom (cf. Ps. 55:6) and security (cf. Jer. 48:28) or senselessness and hence vulnerability (cf. Hos. 7:11) or innocence (Mt. 10:16). But instead of being like a dove the city is oppressing – no freedom, no security, no admission of vulnerability, no innocence, nothing here to endear her to us. The dove has become a vicious creature.

The people of God should appear glorious, a picture of redemption, innocent like a dove. Instead we so often partake in humanity’s rebellion against God.

In Hebrew, the word for “dove” is also the name Jonah, reminding us of the response of Nineveh (which had just been mentioned in Zephaniah) to the preaching of repentance. Not so Jerusalem.

Verse 2 speaks of a lack of attentiveness and a lack of submission (in Hebrew “listening to a voice” has connotations of obeying). We know of course cases of bad submission in slavish, denigrating obedience. But we see the importance of good submission when it is missing as is the case in verses 3-4.

In the ancient world, not just in the Bible, people were often compared to sheep and rulers to shepherds whose task it is to protect and provide for the sheep. To be good officials and judges, rulers must submit their agendas to these wider and higher tasks. Politicians who refuse such submission and put their own interests and careers above the welfare of the communities they serve are a disaster – “roaring lions” rather than shepherds.

Judges whose decision making does not submit to the law (God's law in this case) but to their own agendas, maybe driven by the amount of bribes they received, are “wolves at dusk” – nocturnal animals at their most hungry. Their greed – alluded to with the comment that “they leave nothing until the morning” – is a threat to the community.

In such situations prophets ought to be speaking truth to power but if, e.g., they are more concerned about their own reputation – like newspapers whose chief concern is to make a profit – they will not submit to the truth, they become “faithless persons”.

The tasks of priests should have been the most straightforward of them all. God’s word lays down clearly their tasks and responsibilities. But it takes courage to distinguish between what is holy and profane, between what belongs with God and what does not, to declare right and wrong in accordance with God’s word when these distinctions are not popular and so the priests here are taken to task for doing violence to God’s instruction.

We all submit to something or someone. The question is whether we submit to God, to what is good and right and beautiful, or whether we submit to tradition, to an ideology, to the needs of our family, or purely to our own desires.

What happened in Jerusalem at that time is that a people that was linked with God’s name and revelation, that was committed by covenant to submit to Him – as our baptism commits us to submit to Christ and gives us the name Christian – have instead submitted to other gods and agendas, mostly their own.

There was no attentiveness, no submission, no obedience, no trust in God. The city “has not drawn near to its God” and so had become indistinguishable from any other city.

So far so bad, but then comes verse 5.
The LORD within it is righteous; he does no wrong.
Every morning he renders his judgement,
each dawn without fail;
but the unjust knows no shame. (NRSV)
Right there, in the midst of this unfaithful city, is the LORD God – righteous, just, committing no iniquity, no unjust acts, doing no wrong. As the apostle Paul put it, “if we are faithless, he remains faithful-- for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). Here is good news: God cannot be compromised. His integrity, truthfulness, and justice remain unchanged.

But what good is that? What does it mean to say
Every morning he renders his judgement,
each dawn without fail?
How is that evident when God loves to delegate, loves to rule indirectly? He has given his word to his people. Does he not render judgement through his human agents, the priests, the prophets, the judges, the officials? If God’s agents fail, how is God’s judgement rendered? Well, imperfectly at best.

But the saying (wrongly?) attributed to Teresa of Avila that “Christ has no body but ours, no hands but ours” is not entirely true. Other parts of creation fulfill Christ's command. And there is a hint of that in the Hebrew poetry.

I reckon that the expression translated “each dawn” in the NRSV has a double use and meaning, belonging with both poetic lines (in what scholars call a pivot pattern). God renders his judgement, implements his decree each dawn by bringing forth the light of morning. Poetically speaking, the reliable movement of the sun – coming up, traversing the sky and going down, day by day – is an implementation of God’s decree, without fail because there is no will involved other than God’s.

In reality, of course, the sun is the fix point and it is the earth – it is us – that are moving. And this also presents us a beautiful image, as we remember that the sun shines forth its light whether we see it or not, whether we can see the sun brightly in the sky or whether it is hidden behind clouds, whether we and our part of the earth are turned towards the sun, feelings its warmth, or whether we are turned away from it at night.

The sun is constant and in this an image of God’s constancy and the fact that he has ordered the universe in a way that offers some stability (reliability and therefore predictability), even when we mess things up. The light and warmth of his love are unchanging.
but the unjust knows no shame.
The final line reminds us of the reality on the ground. God does not commit unjust acts but the unjust know, i.e. experience, no shame (in the objective sense = disgrace) – not at the moment anyway.

This will in fact change – the whole book is about the disaster that shook things up in the sixth century BC. But for most of the time we live in a world in which many who bear God's name sully his reputation and do so without being taken to task for it -- and this is why we have saints days and celebrate All Saints.

Sadly there are many who have been set apart for God in baptism but have no knowledge of God, whose mind is set on things of this world rather than on Christ, and whose lives dishonour the name of Christ by which they are called.

And so we remind us of those saints, those set apart for God, through whom the light of Christ shone so brightly that they show us what it means to live with and in Christ. They were of course not perfect but there was, as it were, credible evidence in their lives which could be used in a law court to convict them of being Christian.

We sometimes use the saying “I’m not a saint” to mean “I am not perfect” but it would be foolish to dismiss our call to be saints on the grounds that we will never be perfect in this life.

The question is one of identity. We are all sinners, falling short of the glory of God - of our calling to reflect him into this world. Those of us who are baptised are all saints in some sense, namely set apart for God, bearing the name of Christ. But some are saints by name only and in reality sinners who live without God in the world. Others are saints in a fuller sense – they depend on Christ, draw close to him, listen to his voice and seek to implement his will – while still being sinners, falling short of their calling in one way or another.

For them and us saints days and All Saints may be useful after all as an inspiration to keep going and to pray fervently that the light and warmth of God’s righteous love would ever more clearly shine through us too and we would be Christians not in name only but as those who live in Christ.

This is one of the things it means to pray Hallowed by thy name.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Zephaniah on Bible Sunday

I am going through Zephaniah in an eight-week sermon series which includes Bible Sunday, All Saints Sunday and Remembrance Day. Here are some notes for a sermon from Zephaniah 2 on Bible Sunday.

If every part of Scripture is profitable for our learning, to equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17), how is Zephaniah 2 useful? All this talk about long-gone nations seems remote.

Without even much study reminds us of one or two things:
  • God deals with tribes, nations and empires which is to say God’s purposes are for communities, not just individuals
  • and related to that: God has purposes in history, the messiness of our political lives
Note how  the events in v.4 are given as a rationale for the exhortation in vv. 1-3.

In the Gospel we heard Jesus claim: “the scriptures...testify on my behalf” and looking at Zephaniah 2 we may be reminded straight away of three things:
  • “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son” (Galatians 4:4)
  • historical events matter (pace Jordan Peterson and others)
  • God has intentions for the body of Christ

Humility: it’s not all about me and the here and now. It’s about God and his purposes across time and space for all of humanity. This is one reason for the Bible not being a self-help book of useful lessons for individuals.

If we dig deeper, we see an emphasis in Zephaniah 2:5-15 on cities at the beginning (the Philistines) and end (the Assyrians with focus on Nineveh) and a concern with describing the (rural!) aftermath of the destruction rather than the military events themselves (vv. 6 – 9b – 13b, 14). This reinforces a contrast implied earlier in the book (cf. 2:15 with 1:12) between the urban elites and the poor. The two groups embody different attitudes in Zephaniah.

The dispossession and devastation is characterised as leading to the end of a whole socio-economic system - “the end of the world” for the communities concerned. Why? Because injustice had become endemic and systemic.

Assyria was thought to be the major power at the time but with v.12 (“killed by my sword”) which alludes to the destruction of Thebes by the Assyrian army in 664 YHWH claims this for himself.

Reading this chapter as part of the whole Bible, we must not let it denigrate culture in favour of “the simple life” of the poor - after all the Bible's story ends in a city - but there are reminders here that can serve as reproof and correction for us about the typical temptations of

  • urban life and commerce (Philistines - called "Canaan" = merchant),
  • enjoying greater peace and security than others (Moab and the Ammonites)
  • enjoying prosperity and being able to shape the world to suit us (Assyria)

Let us never think that we enjoy peace and security and success and prosperity because we are better than the people of Aleppo, the refugees sleeping rough in the forests in northern France or the people who go to food banks when we go to the supermarket. Let us not ignore those who live on the margins of society and associate with rather than merely give to the poor.


Note also that God’s judgement has a positive purpose, it is in another sense not the end of the world. Twice we read about a Judean “remnant” (the word reminds us that Judah goes through the disaster as much as the other nations; it is not the beneficiary as such) and there is a glimpse of hope for non-Judeans as well in verse 11, to be teased out further in the next chapter: Disaster demolishes idols and so enables recognition of the one true God. This must be a good thing.

Ultimately we will see such victory of the truth over fake news and gods only in the final judgement but there are glimpses of this victory in modern history as well, e.g. in the way militant atheism has been unable to suppress the Christian faith in China and Russia.

We should not see God as being bent upon bringing disaster, as if he delights in the death of anyone, but able to bring good out of disaster.

Almighty God, our only strength and refuge, forgive our pride and arrogance and wean us off a false sense of security. Have mercy upon our nation. Grant us repentance sooner than disaster. Let your kingdom come and all the world acknowledge your majesty.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Preaching Zephaniah

I am half way through an eight-week sermon series on Zephaniah. For last week's Bible Study I produced a crib sheet to remind us of the first three sermons. This may not make a great deal of sense to those who have not heard the sermons but I put it here anyway.

Zephaniah 1:1-7
Deuteronomy 18:15-22; “The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah.”
The end of the world, announced in 630s or 620s BC.
  • disintegration of the present political system in early sixth century BC
  • on the cross
  • “at the end of days”
God’s involvement in such disaster; God’s aim.
Invitations to face up to God, e.g. James 5:14-16.

Being silent before God: 
  • stopping the routine, 
  • pausing the activism, 
  • stopping the talking 
– but here ironic.

Zephaniah 1:7-18
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23, 25)

The risk factors (cf. 1 Timothy 6:17):
(1) with great power (<- resources) comes great responsibility
(2) wealth & power often disconnect people from those who are less well off
(3) wealth ~ greed + violence and fraud nexus
(4) wealth creates an illusion of independence and safety

“Madame missionary, I never realized that Jesus was all I needed, until Jesus was all I had.”

Zephaniah 2:1-3
The well-off asked to act as if they were poor – as a matter of urgency! Why?
--> Learning about dependence (humility)
--> Developing a longing/hunger for justice (righteousness)

What might this look like for us?
Not simply to give to the poor but to belong with “the humble of the land”.

The “humble of the land”... (who are responsive to God)
(a) humble circumstances, low rank
(b) having a modest estimate of one’s importance
... are asked to seek

(1)  the Lord
(2) righteousness = rightly ordered relationships > justice for me
(3) humility – seeking humility > humbleness being forced upon me