Monday, 5 February 2018

Exit, Pursued by a Psalmist: Stage Directions in the Psalms

Every so often, I come across an aside or a comment that for some unfathomable reason delights me. Here’s the latest:

[Psalm 87:7] is by any reckoning a very strange verse. The suggestion has even been made that it is not part of the poem, as such, at all, but a rubric or stage direction: ‘At this point the singers and dancers will perform All my Fountains are in You’! As if to balance that, verse 1 looks more like a title than a first line. Literally, it reads simply ‘His foundation on the holy mountains’.

Michael Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 73–150: Songs for the People of God. The Bible Speaks Today (Nottingham: IVP, 2001), p.58

I’ve not found this particular suggestion about 87:7 in any of the commentaries on the Psalms I have easy access to, but I’d love to know who originally suggested it – unless, of course, this is Wilcock being modest about his own take on the verse.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Can we trust God? A sermon for Advent

I preached again yesterday. It seems that no-one fell asleep (though perhaps I couldn’t tell; I use my reading glasses when preaching, which blur the congregation), so I thought I’d repost it here, as is increasingly my custom.

Isaiah 40:1-11; Luke 1:5-20

Do you find it hard to trust God? I do. I suppose on some deep inner level, I absolutely trust God and know for sure that God is working for the good of this world. But I watch the news, I see family and friends going through the daily grind and struggling to make ends meet, I despair at my own inadequacies and sinfulness, and I can only admit: I find it hard to trust God. When will God change things for the better?

The prophet Habakkuk felt a little like this. You’ll remember that he had serious reservations about the way God planned to sort out destruction and violence in the land—by sending the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem! And destroy Jerusalem the Babylonians did! They swept in like a flood, plundered and destroyed the temple, and deported the elite, leaving the city and its remaining inhabitants in some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. This was Jerusalem’s 9/11 moment, and the moment they realised that God, whom they’d taken for granted for so long, had in fact deserted them. Habakkuk knew that this was going to happen: God had told him so—not that it made things any better. Normally, we’d want to put our trust in God for good things, not for bad. But God had promised Jerusalem would fall—and God’s promise was fulfilled.

Thirty, maybe forty years later, Jerusalem is still largely a ruin, its people getting on with life, the elite doing pretty much the same in Babylon itself. But now, in the midst of exile and displacement, a voice is heard, clear and crisp over the dissonance of Babylonian supremacy:

‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Jerusalem, you’ve served your term and your debt is paid. So I, the Lord your God, am going to return! Get ready and prepare the way for me!’

What good news! God has promised to return to Jerusalem, along with all the pomp and ceremony that entails. But the people doubt:

‘Really? Do we have to? The last time you had anything to do with us—well, it didn’t end so well. You destroyed the city you claimed to have loved! So you’ll forgive us if we find it hard to trust you. We’re just like pawns, being moved around and played with as and when you see fit. Our lives are nothing but dying grass and fading flowers to you! So leave us alone. Let us get on with making the most of our lives while we still can.’

You can understand why the people are jaded; from their perspective, God hasn’t treated them particularly well in recent decades. So why should they trust God now? For one simple reason: ‘The word of our God will stand forever.’ God promised to send the Babylonians; and the Babylonians came, the Babylonians saw, and the Babylonians conquered. God had promised Jerusalem would fall—and Jerusalem fell. And now God promises to return to Jerusalem—why on earth shouldn’t that promise be fulfilled as well?

To cut a long story short, a story that spans a period of around four hundred years, let’s just say that God’s promises continued to be fulfilled. The Babylonians were conquered, the exiled people returned to Jerusalem, and the temple was rebuilt and eventually expanded. Things still weren’t fantastic for God’s people, but at least they were able to worship in accordance with the law of Moses at the temple in Jerusalem. And this is where we find ourselves now, with Zechariah the priest, offering incense as part of one of the daily sacrifices. It was a real privilege for him—priests were only rota’d to burn the incense once in a lifetime, and this was as close to the presence of God in the holy of holies as an ordinary priest could get. And so Zechariah was carrying out his duties diligently, stopping to pray, as was the custom, before he would leave the sanctuary along with the other priests.

‘The secret is to rinse thoroughly
before applying the conditioner.’
I needn’t dwell on the narrative details of today’s Gospel reading. You’ll recall, I’m sure, that the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, announces that he and his aging wife Elizabeth would have a son, John, who would lead God’s people to true repentance in preparation for the Lord’s arrival. It’s a good day for Zechariah—not only is he rota’d to offer incense, but he’s visited by one of God’s angels and promised a son as well! Not bad—but Zechariah’s response is sceptical, incredulous:

‘How will I know this will happen? I’m old, and so is my wife. Prove it—give me a sign!’

The presence of an angel isn’t enough, it seems! And so Zechariah is given a sign. It might seem a little excessive, but Zechariah is made mute and possibly deaf as well (the Greek can mean both) for daring to disbelieve God’s word through Gabriel. It is a fairly obvious sign for Zechariah that God’s word is true, that God can be trusted to bring about what God promises. And, the story continues, Elizabeth did get pregnant and, in due time, baby John was born.

Habakkuk, Isaiah, Zechariah the priest; trusting God, doubting God—what can we say about all this? Well, I started by saying I find it hard to trust God. It’s not that I don’t trust God—but I do find it hard. A large part of this is probably because I know the plans I have for me, plans to prosper and not harm me, and I find it difficult to accept that God would want anything else. But not trusting God in this way makes it very easy for me to treat God as a kind of talisman or good luck charm—God is hanging around my neck like a pendant, a magic lamp to rub when I want things done my way. The trouble is, that’s kind of how the people of Judah treated God, and we all know how that turned out! God calls us to prepare God’s way, not the other way around!

Let me repeat that: God calls us to prepare God’s way, not the other way around. This gives me hope; this is what gives me hope even when I find it hard to trust God, even when I find it hard to trust that God will come and sort out evil and injustice and violence and the rest. Our natural reaction, as fallen and sinful humans, I think is to resist God and to disbelieve what God says clearly enough:

‘The Babylonians are coming!’ [Nah!]

‘I am returning to Jerusalem!’ [Really?]

‘You are going to have a baby!’ [Hmm . . .]

Or even: ‘Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.’

God is true to God’s word, and what God says will happen will happen. It’s hard to trust God when God makes such crazy-sounding promises, I know, but that’s beside the point: God calls us to prepare God’s way, not the other way around.

It’s worth bearing this in mind, I reckon. Just as God told the people through the prophet Isaiah that God is on the way back to Jerusalem, so we are being called to tell other people that God in Jesus Christ is on his way back. Even as we prepare for the Christmas season and celebrate Jesus’ birth with carols and gifts and chocolates and turkey, we, as the body of the risen Jesus, are preparing to welcome him back not only as King of kings and Lord of lords, but, in Isaiah’s words, as the shepherd who lovingly gathers us up in his arms and cares for us. We can trust God to do just this, because ‘the word of our God will stand forever’—and if God calls us to prepare the way for Jesus’ return, then we can trust that Jesus will return and transform all things by the Holy Spirit, and that all we do now to advance God’s kingdom will not be wasted even when it seems like the most pointless thing on earth.

So I admit it: I do find it hard to trust God. But I also believe God’s word is true, and God’s word gives me hope that whatever degree of trust I place in God is not meaningless. God promised to return to Jerusalem—and God returned. God promised Elizabeth and Zechariah a baby boy—and a baby boy was born. And God promises that Jesus will return soon—and I am convinced that Jesus will come again, this time not as a baby, but as our risen Lord, to put all things right once and for all. Come, Lord Jesus!

Monday, 27 November 2017

Book Review: Simon Oliver, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed

Simon Oliver, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017)

The Christian doctrine of creation is not simply concerned with the universe’s origin, but also, as Simon Oliver notes, with its nature and purpose. Moreover, the current focus on scientific endeavour and the natural order is in many respects a detour from the paths established by earlier scholars whose faith in God allowed them to interpret all things as inherently meaningful and belonging to a system of signs in which they moved towards their final completion in God. This change of direction occurred during the Reformation period, when theologians began to champion the literal sense of Scripture over the moral, allegorical, and anagogical; and this particular approach to Scripture in turn contributed to an intellectual climate which allowed for the objectification of creatures previously saturated with the sacred. Thus theology’s present task is to recover this lost sense of significance, something best done, Oliver implies, by working through the implications of the traditional doctrine of creation from nothing: that everything, including creation itself, is a gift of God.

Oliver builds his case first by exploring the biblical portrayal of creation in Genesis (Chapter 1) and then by discussing how the doctrine of creation from nothing affects our understanding of God, the world, and the providential relation between the two (Chapters 2–3). Chapter 4, on creation and science, is arguably the most important: here, Oliver notes that science–religion dialogue needs to do more than simply find areas of agreement, as the scientific enterprise has so shaped our understanding of the universe that it is practically impossible to treat the world as anything other than an object. This is why an account of the universe as God’s gift (Chapter 5), a gift to be received with gratitude, is so important for today.

Occasionally, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed presents more as a case for Thomistic metaphysics than as an introduction to the topic of creation as such, but it is an illuminating and immensely satisfying read, and one that should enjoy a wide readership.

This review is due for publication in Theological Book Review.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Destruction and Violence: A Remembrance Sunday Sermon on Habakkuk’s Complaints

I preached today at my church’s Remembrance Sunday service. This coincided with the first of a three-week sermon series on the book of Habakkuk, supplemented with whatever the Gospel reading for the day happens to be. Here’s my effort.

Habakkuk 1:1–2:1; Matthew 25:1-13

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the day we commemorate the servicewomen and servicemen who have given of themselves to help restore or bring peace to a world of destruction and violence. These are the women and men who have left families and friends and homes to journey to faraway countries to serve a perceived greater good. Some serve out of a sense of honour; others for an ideal; still others, out of duty. Each and every servicewoman and serviceman will have their own reasons to serve. Regardless of what we think of war, of the rightness or otherwise of entering and escalating and diffusing conflict around the world, we are all shaped in some way by the actions of those who have given up all that is dear to them—even, in far too many cases, their own lives. Today, these servicewomen and servicemen are in our thoughts and prayers. We will remember them.

But we’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s all for nothing. Read the newspapers, watch the news: destruction and violence are all around us. Since the turn of the century, UK servicewomen and servicemen have been involved, or are still involved, in a number of conflicts around the world, including Eastern Europe, Sierra Leone, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And, of course, the UK is not the only country at war or threatening violence. Who can forget, for example, the recent standoffs between the United States and North Korea? Destruction and violence are all around us.

And what about here in the UK? Read the newspapers, watch the news: stabbings, bombings, shootings, acid attacks, vehicle crashes, instances of domestic violence, suicides, self-harming, substance abuse, bullying, sexual predation. These sorts of things happen all too often, and some only down the road or around the corner—or perhaps even in our own homes. Even here, even in south-east London, destruction and violence are all around us. The servicewomen and servicemen—we will remember them. But who will remember us? Will our government remember us? Will our politicians and business leaders remember us? Will God remember us?

This is Habakkuk’s complaint. Habakkuk lived in Jerusalem at a time when Judah and several of the smaller nations in the region were constantly squeezed by various aggressors. As soon as one empire moved in, another would come and see it off, leaving the people of Jerusalem and other major cities to suffer in their trails of destruction and violence. The kings of these smaller countries would make treaties with their new rulers, but they would also be on the lookout for a chance to rebel and side with the next up-and-coming superpower. The ordinary people of Jerusalem would be caught up in all of this and suffer the fallout from imperialist expansion and political expediency. And so Habakkuk complains: ‘Lord, we are your people—so why aren’t you helping us? Where are you? Do something!’

And the Lord replies, ‘I will do something.’

‘Great!’ Habakkuk’s getting excited. His prayer is being answered.

‘Look at the nations,’ says the Lord. ‘Get ready—I’m going to do something really amazing! You really won’t believe what I’m going to do!’

‘Excellent!’ Habakkuk’s really pumped now. ‘Wonderful! Revive our nation, O Lord!’

‘Habakkuk,’ the Lord replies, ‘here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to send the armies of Babylonia to attack you!’

Silence. Seriously? Is that what the Lord’s going to do? Can you imagine what Habakkuk is thinking and feeling at this point? He has approached the throne of grace, laying before God all his concerns about the destruction and violence in the world, including in his own backyard in Jerusalem, protesting and lamenting God’s inactivity, praying to God for help—and God’s response is essentially: ‘I’m going to make it worse before I make it better.’

The Babylonians (or the Chaldeans in some Bibles) were fast becoming the most destructive force of the day, swallowing up nations left, right, and centre. ‘They are very mean,’ the Lord tells Habakkuk. ‘They move quickly. They terrify others. Their horses are faster than leopards. They are meaner than wolves. They swoop down like ravenous eagles. They want to slaughter, they want to mock, and they want to rule.’ You can almost picture the Lord salivating in delicious anticipation of the destruction and violence to come.

Does this image of the Lord disturb you? It disturbed Habakkuk—so much so, that he comes back to God, challenges God. ‘Lord,’ he says, ‘Lord, you are a holy God who cannot look at evil—so why are you doing this? Why are you sending the Babylonians to attack us? Do our sins really warrant that? We’re saints by comparison! How can you do this to us? How can you raise up Babylon—Babylon!—of all the nations to bring peace to our land when all they want is destruction and violence? Why don’t you sort them out first?’ Habakkuk realises there is something very wrong here and he camps out on the city walls, waiting for the Lord to respond.

And there we must leave Habakkuk, at least for now. God’s response comes in the rest of chapter two, but we’ll need to wait until next week to hear what God says. For now, all we’re left with is a portrait of an Old Testament prophet, haggard and exhausted, watching and waiting for a sign, any sign, of God’s favour towards Jerusalem, watching and waiting, watching and waiting . . .

It is important to watch and wait. Habakkuk has to watch and wait—he can’t do anything else. But Habakkuk’s watching and waiting arises from his willingness to take his difficult questions to God in prayer and his expectation that God will respond. In many respects—and hopefully, this isn’t too tenuous a connection—in many respects, Habakkuk is not unlike the five wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable we heard earlier. If we allow the bridegroom to stand for the Lord in this parable, then we can see that Habakkuk and the five bridesmaids are cut from similar cloth. They all had to watch and wait and be prepared in one way or another. But whereas Habakkuk is left watching and waiting for the Lord to deal with destruction and violence in the land, the bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive and kick off the wedding celebrations and ultimately to consummate his marriage.

And who are the bridesmaids? We are the bridesmaids! We are the ones whom God calls to watch and wait for the Lord Jesus to bring lasting peace to this world! We are the ones whom God calls by God’s Holy Spirit to show the world the peace brought about by Jesus’s death! We are the ones whom God calls to tell of future transformation guaranteed by Jesus’s resurrection! And we are the ones who can do all this because we know Jesus is coming soon! We are the ones who can watch and wait even as we ask, and continue to ask, ‘How long, O Lord?’

Every war, every conflict, every pain inflicted on one person by another—can we see all these as questions directed to God, as longings for a world free from destruction and violence, as unspoken prayers for the completion and peace only God in Christ can bring? Can we, like Habakkuk, and as faithful and wise bridesmaids, embrace the unspoken prayers of this world, this nation, this part of London in our own prayers and ask God, again and again, ‘How long, O Lord, how long until you come and make us whole?’ Can we do this? Can we do this, for ourselves and for our world? We can and we must—but only because we know that God in Christ will not let destruction and violence be the last word. There is a last word, but that last word is a name—and that name is Jesus.

Today is Remembrance Sunday. All the servicewomen and servicemen who have lost their lives ostensibly in the name of peace, and all the servicewomen and servicemen who aim to maintain peace today—we will remember them. But today, Remembrance Sunday, let’s also remember that God has not forgotten us as a world, nor as a nation, nor even as individuals. Let’s remember that God loves each and every one of us, including the people or nations we hate or fear most. And as we take communion this morning, let’s keep watching and waiting, remembering all that Christ has done for us and all that Christ has promised to us. We will remember him.