Wednesday, 28 February 2007

The fox and the chickens Luke 13 31-35

What a contrast we have in these verses. Jesus calls Herod a “fox” whereas he is the “mother hen”. In rabbinic literature the fox was regarded as an animal of low cunning. It stood lower in comparison even with the mighty wolf, let alone the kingly lion. Of course the wolf stood as the emblem of Rome for it had been a she-wolf that had suckled Romulus and Remus in Roman folklore and had therefore been instrumental in the establishment of the original city. The fox is at best a poor substitute for the wolf. Foxes have their holes from which they emerge to wreak havoc in the hen house at night. Creatures of the darkness and the underworld, predatory on the weak and defenceless, the fox was among the least complimentary epithets for a tetrarch let alone a would be king. For his power was shadowy and his rule predatory- but it was not the mighty he could challenge – he preyed on the poor and like those whose ways were evil he prowled in the twilight. Herod the great had played wolf: Herod Antipas could but play fox. “Better to be a tail to lion than a head to foxes” the proverb put it.

But Jesus does not push this proverb. Having dismissed Herod as the fox he does not seize the lion of Judah image for himself. Instead astonishingly he chooses the rather domestic and banal image of the fussy mother hen. The contrast with the fox could hardly be greater. Here Jesus aligns himself unambiguously with the defenceless and helpless chickens upon whom the Herodian party preyed. In the prophecy of Isaiah (ch 31) God says that he will protect Jerusalem like “birds hovering”. The image at least is of a large bird of prey, scouring the surface of the earth with piercing and all-seeing eye, ready to swoop in powerful dive to protect its young in moments of danger. Instead we have this image of the plump flightless timid hen clucking fussily over its nest offering as its only protection for its chicks its own defenceless body – saying effectively to the predator – take me, eat me have your fill and leave the chicks – they are of little use to you.

Jesus prophetically sees the futility of his own sacrifice. He offers his body for the protection of Jerusalem, but the chickens go pecking around the farmyard oblivious of fox or wolf or even lion for that matter. Indeed rather like the foolish chickens in folk tales of all ages they would rather trust themselves to the power of a predator than to the warm and gentle embrace of their mother’s flightless wing. Just as he must not throw himself from the temple so Jesus refuses to be other than a defenceless hen to his powerless children. It is an awesome sign of his humility.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Temptations Luke 4 1-13

When we come to the story of the temptations we notice that Luke has reversed the order of the last two temptations so that Jesus=s last encounter with the devil (for the time being, Luke cautiously notes) is in the temple - or at least on the roof of it. Thus the temptations mirror the journey of the gospel from wilderness via mountain top to temple.

The journey starts in the desert: no‑one need be surprised that Jesus encountered the devil there: in Luke=s gospel it was the place of evil: it was the place where the evil spirits roamed looking for a home. Jesus, though, went out there filled with the spirit of God. Here he is tempted to turn a stone into bread. This temptation is basic to all: to make a living without work. As Paul put it: AIf a man does not work neither should he eat!@ Perhaps the point is that Jesus is resisting the easy option of living in the desert, away from human contact, the life of the hermit. What does seem obvious is that the temptation was to turn away from serving others into a life of self‑indulgence, either the by choosing the easy route of breaking his fast, or the easy route of isolation from mission, since if bread could be found as easily as stones in the wilderness, why should anyone want to live with the pressures of depending on community?. We are not immune either: the church has always struggled with the tension between escape into the desert, feeding its face spiritually while neglecting the hunger at its doors, and being actively present in the world, serving the community.

The next temptation, as Luke tells it, is clearer. In a flash Jesus sees in his mind's eye all the nations of earth: suddenly he has swung from one extreme to the other: now, far from escaping from responsibility into the desert, the temptation is to be a man of the world. This temptation has also trapped the church: for too long and in too many places, still, the church has muddied its hands in squalid politics, rarely emerging with any dignity and, usually, obscuring the simplicity of the gospel: thus we read reports of how church leaders in France for years harboured Nazi criminals: we are aware that the racist government in South Africa went hand in hand with the Dutch Reformed Church: the Vatican has played politics at a mostly demeaning level for most of its history; the easier place for Christians is in opposition rather than power. It is scarcely possible to be active in politics without denying at some point the heart of the faith: for the self‑giving love of God fits uneasily into any political programme; it leads more easily to crucifixion than landslide election victories. So Jesus teaches that while he cannot live alone with God in a desert of his choosing, turning stones to bread in a self‑indulgent neglect of his social responsibility, he also shows that whole‑hearted involvement in the world's affairs and the grasp of power is equally dangerous, especially if it is not accompanied by a controlling worship of God and concentration on his will. As the Philippian hymn teaches, every knee shall bow at the name of Jesus; but the route to that glory lay in slavery, humiliation and death on a cross. There are no short cuts to establishing the kingdom. And if there were no short cuts for Jesus, there are none for us either.

The last temptation takes place not in the desert, not on a lofty mountain peak, but in the temple. If the desert is the devil's natural habitat, the mountains God's special meeting place with man, where the law is given and the prophets see God, the temple was the very house of God himself. No-one expects to be tempted in God's house. Yet here, perhaps, the temptation is the most devious. Here the Word of God is read out. Surely this causes no trouble: we listen, we obey, we do. The psalm is sung: 'He has given his angels charge over you, to protect you . . . they will carry you in their arms lest you trip over a stone.' The devil has twice been repulsed by Jesus=s use of scripture now begins to use it himself. Put the verse to the test, do something the world can't fail to notice! Call yourself God=s chosen one? What's your faith like? How much are you prepared to rest on the promises of God? But what are we being exhorted to do? To put God to the test, says Jesus. Never do that! When Jesus says “Do not tempt the Lord God” that does not mean, 'Do not tempt me!' He means, 'Don't try to tempt me into putting the Lord God to the test.' Now some people have seen in this temptation a reference to the trial of Jesus: apparently the punishment for blasphemy was being thrown off the temple tower. Similar punishments existed in Rome where the traitors were thrown off the Capitol hill. Luke reports that they tried to throw Jesus over the cliff at Nazareth in the very next story! So the temptation might be to give in, throw in the towel, inflict the punishment on yourself, test God to see if he is on your side or not! This is a sort of medieval trial by ordeal: if he saves you - and surely he will - you are proved in your mission. Though this was a temptation specific to Jesus, often in the house of God we hear the word twisted by the deceiver to make rational sense to us. It is also tempting to judge mission by results: to test our own closeness to his will, the measure of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit by increases in offerings, baptisms membership statistics and size of congregations. But by doing this are we putting God to the test by demanding evidence of his presence with us? Does the absence of signs point to the absence of God? Many people thought so. If Jesus was the Christ, where was God=s protection at Golgotha? His apparent absence was noted by all.

The church has traditionally used the passages about the temptations in wilderness as the passages of scripture to be read on the first Sunday in Lent. In a another desert the old Israel had failed to put faith in God: faced with giants they felt like grasshoppers: for 40 days they had stared the enemy in the face: at the end they shrank from the task and so faced 40 years of nomadic aimless existence: Christians live their lives under the shadow of the cross: to be a follower of Jesus is to be at that heart of suffering where God touches earth. We are tempted to try to retreat into a specious spirituality, concentrating on our own needs; we are tempted to throw ourselves into political action, oblivious of the demands of worship, all action, no spirituality; we are tempted either to throw in the towel, or look for easy answers. In Luke=s account Jesus showed that these temptations must be resisted: the cross is there to be carried. And he makes clear that this is not just a 40 day test but the battle of a lifetime.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

The transfiguration: Luke 9 28-36

The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is recorded in Mark and Matthew as well as in Luke, but Luke stamps his own mark on it by including much detail absent in the other gospels. To begin with he changes the time note at the beginning from six days to eight days. It has sometimes been suggested that Mark, and Matthew (presumably following him) had in mind the six days that the cloud of glory hung over Sinai when Moses received the ten commandments. Certainly it is extremely unusual for Mark to have been so precise about time. Is there then any significance in Luke changing from 6 to 8? Most commentators would suggest not; however the transfiguration - a word Luke seems studiously to avoid (again unlike Mark and Matthew) - is surely some sort of preparation for resurrection. Within the early church resurrection came to be associated with the 8th day. God created the world in 6 days and on the 7th rested. The resurrection took place on the 1st day of the week but in cosmic terms this was the day of new creation, the 8th and eternal day. Early Christian baptisteries were 8 sided to symbolise this. Now if Luke were making a point about this (the Day of the Lord is a very important theme in Luke's gospel) then it may well be that the mention of 6 days in Mark refers not so much to the 6 day presence of glory cloud on Sinai, as to the 6 days of creation: it was on the sixth day that human beings were created in God's image as the climax of God's work. In Mark's account Jesus transfigured appeared in dazzling radiance as the true Son of God: humanity in all its glory. Luke, perhaps with the benefit of Paul's theological insight, now puts a further gloss on Mark. The old Adam was created on the 6th day. Jesus, carrying all the weight of Adam’s sin, died on the 6th day. On the 8th day he rose from the dead as the new Adam. The glorified Jesus is not just man as God intended him to be, the climax of the old creation, but the first being of the new creation.

The second change Luke makes is more easily explained. Jesus takes Peter, John and James up the mountain to pray and it is while Jesus is praying that he is glorified. Thus through prayer Jesus has placed himself within the glorious presence of God. Perhaps Luke is making a point about prayer in general: that prayer lifts the believer into the heavenly places. And in his account it is not just Jesus who shines in glory but Moses and Elijah too, and his glory was not simply a white surpassing that of the finest washing powder (as in Mark) but the white of lightning. Luke also gives us the theme of his prayer: his exodus in Jerusalem.

Now that word exodus had packed within it a colossal theological punch. The whole history of the formation of the Jewish nation was tied up with the exodus from Egypt. A slave rabble were formed into a chosen people under the covenant of Sinai: the exodus lay at the root of their formation, the root of their liberty, the root of their law and informed their feasts. But the coming out of Jesus: his passage through death - personally carrying the curse of the first born - his rising - his own personal identification with Passover where unleavened bread stood in sign for his body, and his own blood was to be the seal on a new covenant: all this new exodus material was now going to be packed into that already redolent word.

Yet while the mysteries of the Christian faith were being revealed, the chosen disciples were so sleepy they missed its import. Luke is surely here preparing us for another hilltop prayer encounter, this time in Gethsemane, when once again the exodus of Jesus was on the agenda and once again the same three disciples missed the plot.

The three gospel accounts are all similar in that they all say that the disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with the transfigured Jesus. They are often identified as representatives of law and prophets: but it is also relevant that they both received theophanies on Mount Sinai. Less attention is given to the association both had with the Passover: Moses as the instigator of the first Passover when the children of Israel left Egypt, and Elijah as the one for whose return a cup is left at the end. Luke's emphasis on the exodus of Jesus makes this association perhaps more poignant. In his resurrection glory on the mount of transfiguration Jesus appears with the representatives of the first and the last cups: alone among the gospel writers Luke quotes Jesus saying at the last supper, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" tying Passover in with the covenant given on Sinai. Thus exodus, covenant, Passover and new creation all find allusion in Luke's subtle account.

Luke also follows Mark (and Matthew) in quoting Peter wishing to prolong the experience by building three booths to Moses, Elijah and Jesus. This could be an allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles - the great feast - which rolled the creation of the tabernacle in the wilderness into one with the harvesting booths of the first harvest in the promised land. Thus strangely the feast seemed to celebrate not only the wanderings of the Aramaeans but also their eventual arrival and settlement in a promised land. Jesus's rebuke showed his total dislike for the ossifying of faith in monuments: it was inappropriate to celebrate an exodus with the structures celebrating an arrival. All three gospels make clear that the glories of the revelation on the mountain are to held in tension with the struggles of discipleship in the plains.

At the high moment of their experience the disciples felt as if the whole shekinah glory of the unapproachable God was being let loose on their unprotected heads. That moment was too much for them but the revelation God affirmed the nature of Jesus by proclaiming him his Son, the Chosen One. The words echoed those spoken from heaven at his baptism. Just as it had been at the moment when Jesus descended into the waters of baptism - the sign of death and resurrection - that God said "Today I have fathered him" so in the poignancy of the moment as Jesus prepared for death God once again affirmed him as his son. For the disciples, too, a command: listen. On this occasion the vision was spectacular but the purpose of the vision was to make them listen even when what they saw might not be encouraging. Since the gospels were written for people who had never seen Jesus to hear about him the command to listen was an essential part of their story. But it was a command the disciples themselves were to ignore.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

sermon on the plain

Luke distinguishes this leadership team from the great crowd of disciples waiting for them in the plain. It is to that larger group that Jesus addresses the teaching that follows. It is not simply for leaders. It is for all who follow him. While it is clear that at this point for Matthew the mountain setting is important for Luke it is important to make clear that the disciples were not limited to a small coterie of specialists. For Luke mountain generally meant withdrawal, plain. involvement. The words "How blest are you who are poor" were said in the context of the plain where the hearers were surrounded by the consequences of poverty, malnutrition, and death. They are also spoken by one who had the power to change things. They are not some mystical theology delivered in a remote spot to a privileged elite, instead they are spoken by one who was touched on all sides by the seriousness of the desperate human condition of those to whom he ministered.

Unlike in Matthew's account, Jesus does not spiritualise poverty, hunger and grief. Nor does he speak about them obliquely. Here Jesus speaks to his disciples directly. And whereas in his Nazareth sermon the congregation fixes their eyes on him, now he fixes his eyes on them. He speaks not just as preacher but as judge. His piercing eyes see them as they are and with prophetic insight as they shall be. This is Mary's song expounded by her son. The logic of materialism is turned on its head: it is you rich, you powerful, you replete and you happy ones who are cursed and you poor, hungry and sad who are blessed. You who are flattered and well thought of are phoney and will be forgotten: the true prophets are you who are abused and denounced. It is you who will be remembered like the great persecuted prophets of old.

The teaching that in Matthew rambles over 109 verses is here condensed into 29. But even within this concentration of material there is room for some addition. The epithet "Judge not that you be not judged" is amplified: not only are followers of Jesus not to judge they are also to have the Father's compassion, and they are to practise his forgiveness. Moreover the command to be compassionate comes first: as Meister Eckhart memorably put it,"Whatever God does, the first outburst is always compassion." Giving is to be generous. Because it is going to be you who set the standards for God's grace, Jesus says. This emphasis on compassion, forgiveness and grace within the context of judgment is entirely consistent with Luke' s account of the life and death of Jesus. Although the large majority of sayings Luke quotes are also in Matthew, through his concentration on these themes, Luke moves the mood of the sermon away from obedience to the law and moral rectitude, to an ethic of love which springs unconditionally from the store of goodness in the disciple's heart. The love demanded goes far beyond that of the golden rule - treat others as you would wish them to treat you. Love is unreserved: enemies deserve it as much as friends: those incapable of paying back love are still to be loved: our love like God's is to be unilateral. Any other ethic will lead to moral collapse. For only unilateral love can unlock the falling spiral of tit for tat. Unlike in Matthew's account it is not a question of wisdom, the men in the parable are neither wise nor stupid: rather it is a question of conscientiousness, care and commitment. The one whose life stands is the one who comes to Jesus, listens and lives, digs deep and only builds when he discovers rock. That is true discipleship.