Sorry for blog silence this week: some difficult and painful family news to deal with. However, I’ve managed to ready tomorrow morning’s sermon for publication. It’s based on the Lectionary Gospel reading, and there’s a big Tom Wright influence to my interpretation. For me, he makes huge sense of a difficult passage.
If we’re not careful, reading a passage like this can make us complacent. We are so used to reading these accounts of ‘wars and rumours of wars … but the end is still to come’ (verse 7) that we assume this is one of those texts about the end of the world, and so we get smug about those Christians who foolishly predict when the end is coming. We sit back saying, “How silly,” and don’t allow the text to have any force with us.
But what if our interpretation is wrong? What if Mark 13 isn’t fundamentally about the end of the world and the Second Coming? Let me make a case that it’s about something else. And while that ‘something else’ doesn’t at first seem to affect us, actually it does. Allow me to explain.
How does the passage start? It begins with one of Jesus’ disciples admiring the Jerusalem Temple.
‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ (Verse 1)
It’s all about the Temple. Jesus answers the comment in those terms. He prophesies the destruction of the Temple (verse 2), and it is about this that Peter, James, John and Andrew ask him for signs that it is about to happen (verses 3-4). I know some will point to later in this chapter (beyond today’s reading) where Jesus quotes Daniel about ‘the son of man coming in glory’ but that is not a prophecy about the Son of Man coming to earth, but coming to God. It prophesies Jesus’ vindication in his resurrection, his ascension and the fulfilment of these prophecies.
Essentially, Jesus tells his closest disciples not to be too impressed by the grandeur of the Temple. It was thought at the time to be the most beautiful of all ancient buildings, and so on a human level you can understand how impressed they are. Further, as good Jews going up for a festival, you can expect them to be favourably disposed towards it. And if they didn’t see it all that often, there here are devoutly religious men who are blown away by an act of sincere religious tourism, just as we might be if we visited a location that had key associations with our faith, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands on the most likely site of Jesus’ tomb.
But then you think a bit more. Did the disciples really expect Jesus to be as awestruck by the Temple as they were, so soon after he had cleared the moneychangers out in a profound act of religious vandalism? Had they not learned a lesson from that? Evidently not.
What are we to take, then, from Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s destruction, a prophecy which would come true just forty years later when Rome crushed a Jewish rebellion?
I think we should clear out one wrong conclusion. This does not give us permission to hate Jewish people, any more than the crucifixion does. If we start to argue that the destruction of the Temple was God’s judgement on the Jews for their part in the death of Jesus, then what are we to make of the many Christian church buildings that have been destroyed over the centuries? Should we automatically assume that all such actions are a sign of God’s displeasure?
And should we assume that Jesus’ prophecy gives us reason to be opposed to all religious buildings? Again, probably not. If a group of people gathers for worship, they will usually need a building. It is a moot point whether they need to own the building or whether they can borrow one, but you cannot avoid the need for buildings.
I think that rather than concentrate on what I might call ‘negative’ interpretations of this story, we need to seek positive interpretations. I don’t say that because I want everything to be nice and happy and to paper over cracks – you will see that positive interpretations carry a considerable challenge.
This story is about true worship. Let me tell you a story. When I arrived in my first appointment as a probationer minister, I was told that my main church had a catchphrase: ‘Flo won’t like it.’ And it was true. Flo never did like it, whatever ‘it’ happened to be. On one occasion when I had announced in advance that the annual Free Churches Good Friday service would include someone hammering nails into a cross – surely unexceptional for such an occasion – I was summoned to the farm where she lived, plied with tea, cake and copies of John Wesley’s Journal, and then asked me to rescind this terrible decision.
It transpired that Flo’s late husband had been the major financial contributor to the purchase of both the manse I lived in and the church building. Her whole life was about preserving his heritage. Flo never did like ‘it’. Her ‘temple’ had to be preserved along its original lines.
And this raises the question about who, what or where we truly worship. Devotion to a building is wrong. A temple is never an end in itself for worship. A temple is where heaven and earth meet. Supremely for Christians, Jesus is where heaven and earth meet, being both divine and human. Indeed, when it comes later to his trial, he will effectively claim to be the true temple when he says, ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.’
In other words, the positive challenge from the beginning of this passage is to make sure that Jesus is the focus of our worship. To stress Jesus as the object of our worship probably sounds so obvious, so central and perhaps even so trite that you might wonder why I would even bother to emphasise it.
But the reality is, we can easily take our eyes off Jesus. We can worship religion rather than him. Like Flo, we can become obsessed more with the vehicles that help us worship than the One who is the worthy object of our devotion.
I say this, having heard recently that some members of the church at whose building Debbie and I were married fear that they will be closed down. I will feel desperately sad if that happens (which is not to comment on whether it will happen, or whether it is right or wrong). But it will be a reminder to me that my focus must be on Jesus, not a building.
And perhaps this is an important reminder for us all. Just as Jesus was warning his disciples that tumultuous and catastrophic times were coming upon the Jewish people, so we live in a time when it seems like the outlook for the Christian faith in our culture seems bleak. Just as the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, so we too see cherished religious institutions collapse and fail. Churches close and denominations even get close to being unviable. This is a critical time to remember that we are to concentrate on Jesus more than the organisations or traditions we dearly love. Might it even be that just as the Jerusalem Temple, with its elaborate sacrificial system and the opposition of its leaders to Jesus, became redundant, so some of our religious systems and structures are also no longer fit for purpose? Now more than ever is a time to make sure our first loyalty is to Jesus and not to some human construction.
But we find all these social convulsions troubling, distressing even. That leads to the second of two themes I want to share with you this morning. Jesus knew his disciples would be upset by the thought of wars and rumours of wars, and he had a word of hope for them. It wasn’t a sugar-coated word of hope, it was one set in the harsh realities that were coming. But hope it was, nevertheless.
That hope comes right at the end of our reading:
‘This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’ (Verse 8b)
Birth pangs. Last week a friend gave birth to a little girl. After a long labour she lovingly scolded a friend who had told her that giving birth was just like ‘doing a big poo’. Need I tell you the deluded friend was male?
Birth pangs are painful, intensely so. What a mother goes through in order to bring new life into the world is excruciating – and even that word seems too weak to describe the experience. But they bear the pain for the sake of the outcome.
By talking about birth pangs, Jesus tells his disciples that the forthcoming traumas, horrendous as they will be, will be the prelude to new life. To quote Tom Wright
‘The picture of birthpangs had been used for centuries by Jews as they reflected on the way in which, as they believed, their God was intending to bring to birth his new world, his new creation, the age to come in which justice and peace, mercy and truth would at last flourish. Many writers from Jesus’ time whose works have come down to us spoke of the Jewish hope in this fashion. Since … Jesus believed that his kingdom-mission, his message, was the divinely appointed means of bringing this new world to birth, we shouldn’t be surprised that he sometimes spoke of it in this way as well.’1
Despite the pain, God is doing something new. Despite the upheavals, God is at work. When you see the tribulations of the church in decline today, do not simply stop and blame our society for turning its back on Christianity, however much that is true. Go further in your thinking. Ponder the thought of why it is God might want to do away with the forms of religion we have had for many years. Could it be that he is judging us? Could it be that the things we cling onto instead of Jesus are the things God is making redundant?
But more than all that, do you dare think that the pain the church is undergoing is that of birth pangs? Could it be that God is bringing something new to birth? As the old ways of doing things falter and crumble, could God be inviting us to experience a death so that we might embrace a resurrection? Can I dare you to believe in the God of new beginnings? The God who says in Isaiah 43, ‘Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. Behold, I am doing a new thing’? The God who says in Revelation 21, ‘I am making all things new’?
Friends, is it not time to recognise the ways in which we have become too attached to our religious institutions and repudiate that as the false worship – yes, the idolatry that truly is? Is it not time to renew a radical commitment and devotion to Jesus as the true object of our desires?
And is it not time to trust God in the shaking of our times, believing him for another act of new creation?
Direct from the crazy world of Christian television, two networks are jostling to cover the Second Coming. Yes, it’s the ultimate ratings war. No longer is the Parousia the great doctrine of hope, it’s the great deliverer of commercial success. You’ll need all those extra viewers to sell your advertising when the Lord returns, won’t you? And as a guy called Leo, who was the second person to comment on Matthew Paul Turner’s post about this, says, if they believe in the ‘Rapture’, who will be operating the TV equipment? Only those ‘left behind’. Won’t it be a shame if Jesus has signed an exclusive deal with a different channel?
Am I being sarcastic? Probably. Should I be? I guess not. But I’m annoyed at another religious stunt which brings our faith into disrepute. It is not that I believe the doctrine of the Parousia should be spiritualised or demythologised. I don’t believe that the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfils the prophecies of this event. Rather, I believe that Christ will appear again (note that word ‘appear’ – it translates the Greek parousia). He is invisibly present in creation but will appear again ‘to judge the living and the dead’. This carrying-on has all the likelihood of becoming the religious equivalent of that early Internet phenomenon, the webcam that was trained on some coffee in a Cambridge University lab. The sceptics will mock ever more loudly. Looks like a case for Tom Wright, in my opinion.
Like every English football fan, I turn into an amateur pundit when an England squad is announced for a major tournament. It was thus with interest and trepidation that I followed Wednesday’s announcement of Roy Hodgson’s squad for the Euro 2012 tournament. Were I a Frenchman, I would be quite pleased with the England squad. I wondered how certain players could be forgotten – notably Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon. The fact that Lennon plays for Spurs, Crouch used to and that Spurs are my time, did not cloud my judgement at all.
And if we think about forgotten men, we come in the Ascension to the forgotten festival. For many Christians, it’s Christmas, Easter and hopefully Pentecost. Ascension gets overlooked. Whether it’s because it always happens on a Thursday, because biblically the event it marks happened ten days before Pentecost, I don’t know, but it is certainly our forgotten festival.
But perhaps there is one reason that leads to our embarrassed silence about the Ascension, and that’s all this talk about Jesus rising up out of sight in a cloud. It all sounds so primitive, so unsophisticated to our scientifically tuned ears. We make our assumptions that the ancients believed that earth was ‘down here’ and heaven was ‘up there’, whereas our knowledge of astronomy and related disciplines seems to make that unlikely.
Yet how else were ancient people going to understand that Jesus had returned to his Father’s presence? Some riding off into the sunset, like the hero of a Western movie, wouldn’t have worked. Could it be that the strange account in Acts of Jesus being taken up from the disciples and obscured by a cloud (verse 9) is the only way God could have communicated this to them? I like to think this is an example of what John Calvin called the ‘doctrine of accommodation’, that many things are just so beyond the human mind that God can only show them in any way to us by simplifying them to our terms. Some of the creation stories may do the same, taking Babylonian myths of the day but importing very different meanings into them.
So the first theme of the Ascension for me, then, is this one of divine mystery accommodated to puny human minds. Let us not think with all our additional knowledge today that we are in any less need of God accommodating himself to our own failures to understand him. As Charles Wesley put it about the Incarnation in one of his hymns,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
‘Incomprehensibly.’ The saving works of God are so beyond and above our thinking and our imagination that the Lord has to find ways of communicating them to us that can make some kind of sense to us.
Hence I would say that a major challenge of the Ascension for us as Christians is to embrace the mystery of God and to stop thinking that we can put him into little boxes of our own making. If God chooses to put small boundaries around his revelation so that we have some chance of comprehension, that is up to him. But it is not for us to say what the limits are. It is not up to us to say, ‘But of course God could not do such-and-such’ – unless it contradicted his character.
Therefore, at Ascension-tide, let us face the challenge that God wants us to think bigger about him than we ever have done before. We may find it hard, but it may be essential. Indeed, unless we do, how ever will we truly worship him? If we are the ones who set limits on who he can be and what he can do, then is he any longer truly God? If God contracts things to help us understand, then that is his business. But we have no business in contracting God for ourselves with the tool of unbelief.
The second theme the Ascension has for me is the joining of earth and heaven. That Wesley hymn I just quoted starts with the lines,
Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree
And the Ascension is about the uniting of earth and heaven. Jesus’ journey from earth to heaven is not a vacating of earth – after all, ten days later he will send his own Spirit. It is about the joining of earth and heaven.
Remember that this is central to Jesus himself. In Jewish thought, the Temple was the place where earth and heaven met. But Jesus presented himself as the true Temple when he said, ‘Destroy this Temple and in three days I will rebuild it,’ referring to his death and resurrection. Earth and heaven meet, and worship is the fitting response. The Ascension shows us, as does the Incarnation and other aspects of Jesus’ ministry, that he is the one where earth and heaven meet. He is the true Temple. He, therefore, is to be worshipped and adored. Ascension is a reason for worship.
And so we might be puzzled by the Ascension, but we need to get beyond the default modern reaction in order to worship the one who has brought earth and heaven together. Ascension tells us that Jesus is worthy of all our praise and honour, not only as we sing and pray but as we live for his glory each day.
That call to worship leads us neatly into a third theme, which is that Ascension shows Jesus as both Lord and king. Tom Wright tells how one of the ways in which the myth of Roman emperors becoming gods at the time of their death is that a slave was – shall we say – ‘encouraged’ to report that they saw the soul of the dying emperor flying to heaven at the moment of death.
When Luke tells us the story of the Ascension, witnessed not by conscripted slaves but willing disciples, and not just a soul but the whole raised body of Jesus, his initial audience is surely meant to understand that this is a claim that here is the true emperor of the world. Caesar may call himself Lord, but the true Lord is Jesus.
The Cross, of course, has already declared that Jesus is King. ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me,’ he had said. Pilate had put up the notice, ‘King of the Jews’, and the Gospel writers mean us to understand that this is ultimately not a criminal charge, nor a statement of irony, but the truth. Jesus is enthroned as king on the Cross. The Resurrection then sees that king’s kingdom coming in power. Now this is capped by the Ascension as a visual sign of his reign. Jesus is Lord and King of the universe.
But it all means that he reigns in a different manner. He had reminded his disciples that the rulers of the Gentiles lorded it over people, but they were not to be that way. They were to serve. His own enthronement, as I said, was to be on the Cross – in suffering. And as we bow before our ascended Lord and King, we commit ourselves to work for his kingdom in sacrificial ways. If we worship Jesus, the true Temple who brought earth and heaven together, and we should because he is both Lord and King, then that worship cashes out in costly service. Ascension, then, asks us the question: what has my devotion to Jesus Christ cost me? Because if it has cost us nothing then we may never have understood Jesus in the first place.
There is a fourth and final Ascension theme I want to share, and it’s reflected in Hebrews 10:11-18. What does Jesus do when he gets back to the right hand of the Father? He sits down. That could mean a number of things. It could be another statement about his authority – after all, a Jewish rabbi sat down, rather than stood up, to teach. Remember that is what Jesus himself did when he preached at Nazareth. He has not stopped speaking, and as we are reminded elsewhere in the Scriptures he has not stopped praying, either.
But I prefer to see the sitting down in the terms of a rest. When Methodist ministers apply to retire, we have a quaint practice of going before our Synod and ‘asking permission to sit down’. Before we retire, we are deemed to be in what is called ‘the active work’. When we retire, we ‘sit down’. It is about a sense of completion (although the church may still call on us to do certain things).
And the ascended Jesus sits down, because the main burden of his work is done:
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect for ever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:11-14)
As Jesus said on the Cross, ‘It is finished’, so the Ascension confirms that fact. Everything has been done to ensure salvation. We are forgiven through his death. We have new life through his Resurrection. From the right hand of the Father he pours out the Spirit so that we can live sacrificially for his kingdom. As the ascended Jesus waits for the final destruction of death, he has given us all we need to lives as little Jesuses, to be the faithful people and new community he wants us to be.
Ascension, finally, then, says, let us rise to the task. Jesus is waiting.
Last week, I was asked to give an extended talk to a midweek group on this theme. This is the text I had before me when I gave the talk.
No one really talks about Holy Saturday, yet if we stop and think about it, it’s where most of us live our lives. Holy Saturday is the no-man’s land between questions and answers, prayers uttered and miracles to come. It’s where we wait – with a peculiar mixture of faith and despair – whenever God is silent or life doesn’t make sense.As we turn to explore the silence of God, we are compelled to address the problem of unanswered prayer more literally than we have done so far, examining the times when God simply doesn’t reply to us when we pray. It’s not that He’s saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to our prayers; it’s that He’s not saying anything at all. We pray and pray but God remains silent.
For many years, I’ve been suspicious of the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul‘. It’s only in recent years, as I’ve read the works of people like Tom Wright, that I’ve come to see it as far more biblically respectable than I previously thought.
Recently, Frank Viola has interviewed two scholars who propound this view. The conversations are about far more than this issue, of course. I commend them to you. He has interviewed N T Wright himself and he has interviewed Scot McKnight. They are well worth a read.
Scot McKnight is worried:
He’s not the only one. I’m currently reading Michael Frost‘s book ‘The Road To Missional‘, in which he builds on the work of N T Wright and the late David Bosch to say that mission is alerting the world in announcement and demonstration to the fact that Jesus is King.
What they all seem to be getting at is that we have reduced the gospel to easy-believism. ‘Just accept Christ as Lord and Saviour.’ ‘Repent and believe.’ Well, yes, except the emphases on ‘Lord’ and ‘repent’ often fail to connect with Jesus’ frequent command in the Gospels to follow him. Indeed, these approaches are often embarrassed by the Gospels, drawing purely on a certain reading of Paul and only concentrating on the death of Christ, plus perhaps his birth to prove he was divine. The bits in between seem irrelevant to this approach.
How, then, should we summarise the Gospel? How would you summarise the Gospel? Indeed, can we summarise the Gospel briefly?
It’s been two or three weeks since I’ve posted a sermon. This weekend I’m not at one of my churches, and I’ve been asked to preach from the Lectionary. My study of this passage led me to what I found to be a surprising twist on the meaning I had always thought it had. See whether this sheds new light on a familiar story for you, too.
[Sermon begins with sound effect of an alarm clock.]
It’s OK, I’m not trying to wake you up before the sermon sends you to sleep. (Although I hope it won’t.) Were it not for copyright laws, I would have played you the beginning of the song ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd from ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, which begins with a cacophony of alarm clocks.
But if I gave you an unwelcome foretaste of Monday morning, it was for a reason. You heard an alarm clock. And I want to suggest to you that in the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus’ listeners heard a first century alarm clock – ringing in their hearts and minds.
How so? Robin read, ‘They were astounded at his teaching’ (verse 22). When we read passages like this one in the Gospels, we get a sense that the people are amazed and impressed by Jesus. Indeed, that’s how we tend to interpret the statement at the other end of the story in verse 27, ‘They were all amazed’.
And if the alarm clock makes me think of Pink Floyd, the sense of amazement takes me to Kate Bush and her old song ‘Wow’, with its chorus, ‘Wow, wow, wow, wow, unbelievable!’ That’s what we think the people are saying about Jesus: ‘Wow!’ ‘Unbelievable!’
But the bad news, is that here we side with Pink Floyd rather than Kate Bush. It’s alarm, not wow. Mark has six different words he uses for this sense of amazement, and the one he uses here means not ‘wonder’ and ‘amazement’ but ‘alarm’. Strictly speaking, we should translate verse 22 as ‘The people were alarmed at his teaching’.
Why should the synagogue congregation be alarmed at Jesus’ teaching? We don’t know what Jesus taught on this occasion, but we do know from earlier verses in Mark 1 what the general tenor of his teaching at this time was. Take verses 14-15:
Now when John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Most of this should not cause alarm to his hearers. Good Jews were waiting for the time to be fulfilled. They longed for the kingdom of God. They wanted good news. They were being ruled over by Rome, whose emperor (‘king’) claimed to be the Son of God, and who claimed that the rule of Rome was good news. The announcement of a new emperor was called a ‘gospel’. The Jews don’t like this. Here is someone whom Mark calls in the first verse of his Gospel ‘the Son of God’, rather than Caesar. He is proclaiming that God, not Caesar, is King. Can you not imagine the cheering? This is good news to believe in!
But … there is one word hidden in the midst of all this that will alarm them. ‘Repent.’ God’s people weren’t meant to repent. It was pagan, Gentile sinners who were supposed to recognise their sin and change. God’s people were the oppressed. They were the ones who were going to be vindicated.
Yet no. Jesus comes and addresses them with the word ‘repent.’ “What? Us? You’re kidding! How dare you!” Sound the alarm. There’s good news, but to receive it you need to change. They didn’t expect that.
And maybe as a community that is a decreasing minority in a society that no longer understands us, a culture that is far less sympathetic to us, maybe we in the Western church want Jesus to ride into town with an angelic cavalry and vindicate us, too. However, what if he did show up here this morning and he made all sorts of gospel promises to us, but they are the bread around the filling of repentance?
Don’t get me wrong. I am sure God is concerned about the decline of the western church, just as I am convinced he cared about Israel suffering oppression. But his main concern may not be to come to us and say, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” He may need to challenge us.
The other day the BBC and various newspapers carried coverage of a report from the University of Essex which plotted the decline in honesty and integrity in our society over the last ten years. To take just one statistic from among many, a decade ago 70% of people agreed that extra-marital affairs were always wrong. Now, only 50% agree with that. In the comments that readers contributed on the BBC website about this story, one person asked, ‘Where is the church in this?’ An avalanche of replies said that the church had little credibility in the honesty stakes, given the way she had covered up child abuse by priests. Now I know that some people use the child abuse scandal as a stick with which to beat the church, and I also know that the vast majority of churchgoers are not culpable, but the fact remains that our claims to integrity are tarnished in the world and it therefore may well be that Jesus comes to us with a message of repentance.
If you remember the comedy series ‘Are You Being Served?’ you may recall the scenes where the elderly and doddery owner of Grace Brothers Department Store, the so-called Young Mr Grace, would turn up on the shop floor on the arms of his beautiful young nurse and tell the staff, “You’ve all done very well.” Sometimes I wonder whether that is the only message we are willing to hear from Christ, when he may have reason with us, like ancient Israel, to slip the word ‘repent’ in amidst all the good news.
We may hear the alarm call to repent, to change our minds about the way we are living, to do a u-turn in our direction. However much we would like to see churches growing numerically again and with a greater proportion of younger generations, one thing is sure: it is not going to happen while we keep on doing the same thing. Albert Einstein had a famous definition of insanity. For Einstein, insanity was to keep on doing the same things while expecting a different result. As someone else has said, what got us here is not what is going to get us out of here. It is going to require change. That won’t just be about techniques, methods and strategies: it will probably involve repentance as well.
If these are some of the implications of the initial observation that the people ‘were astounded’ [alarmed] at his teaching’ (verse 22), then we need secondly to think about the time they repeat their amazement after Jesus expels the demon from the afflicted man:
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Verse 27)
Take those words – which I said we normally interpret as meaning, wow, what an amazing guy! He’s fantastic, so much better than the regular guys – and think about it again. If they were not so much impressed as alarmed, you see it in a new light. What if they were alarmed that Jesus taught with authority, and that even unclean spirits obey him? Let me illuminate it by sharing with you a strange pet theory I have.
It’s this: I think that secretly, a significant number of churchgoers actually prefer boring preachers. I know we hear plenty of complaints about boring sermons, a good deal of it with justification, but I think there is a group of people in many congregations who are clandestine supporters of the tedious preachers whose sermons lack considerable lustre.
Why? Not just so they can catch up on sleep after Saturday night. Not merely so they can get a good blood pressure reading at the doctor’s on Monday morning. No: if the preacher is mind-numbing, then they aren’t challenged. They don’t want to be confronted with the need to change, which a lively preacher might do, and so they can keep on with their own sweet way of life. Repentance and other ugly things that are really for those who are altogether too enthusiastic about religion can be side-stepped.
These people will be alarmed at a preacher who has authority, to whom people respond with changed lives (and even unclean spirits have to get up and leave the building). It gets a bit too close for comfort.
This manifests itself in other ways, too. Tom Wright has pointed out in his recent book ‘Simply Jesus’ that scepticism about the miraculous can be used by people precisely to avoid the challenge of Jesus. He says this:
In Jesus’ own day, there were plenty of people who didn’t want to believe his message, because it would have challenged their own power or influence. It would have upset their own agenda. For the last two hundred years that’s been the mood in Western society too. By all means, people think, let Jesus be a soul doctor, making people feel better inside. Let him be a rescuer, snatching people away from this world to “heaven.” But don’t let him tell us about a God who actually does things in the world. We might have to take that God seriously, just when we’re discovering how to run the world our way. Skepticism is no more “neutral” or “objective” than faith. It has thrived in the post-Enlightenment world, which didn’t want God (or, in many cases, anyone else either) to be king. (Pages 58-59)
The Jesus who teaches with authority is an alarm call. The Jesus whose authoritative teaching leads people to change their attitudes and actions is a subversive, if not a revolutionary. He unsettles the status quo.
The thing is, it’s not enough to tick all the boxes, follow the rules of the church culture, sing the right hymns and say the creeds. In our story, the unclean spirit knew who Jesus was. He is the Holy One of God, who has come to destroy evil (verse 24). But was that sufficient? Not in the slightest. Unless encounter with Jesus leads to the response of a changed life, it is worthless.
You see, Jesus’ fame spreads around Galilee after this incident (verse 28), but what do you do with the fame? You can offer adulation to a famous person, but big deal: look at the vacuous nature of celebrity culture in our day. But what practical, positive and healthy difference does celebrity worship make in the life of the fan? Little or none, I would suggest. You can become a Jesus fan, but still not be changed, and so not be aligned with the revolutionary project of his kingdom. You can’t around the alarm of having to follow Jesus by substituting the shallow veneration of a fan.
Ultimately, no manoeuvres are possible. We come face to face with Jesus, and we have to do something. We need to make a choice. Sitting on a fence is painful. Going down the middle of the road only gets you run over. It has to be one side or another. Either we stay with our alarm and our fear, and we end up joining the opponents of Jesus (and the opposition in Mark’s Gospel begins in the very next chapter). Or we recognise that the Jesus who claims to be the true king and Son of God rather than Caesar is one who claims our allegiance. His reign as king will turn upside-down the values of human empires. The poor, not the rich, will be blessed, and so on.
And as he turns human values upside-down (or right way up), so he will upend our lives. When we meet Jesus, the only constructive response is to repent.
Let us make no mistake. Let us not be imprisoned by the fear of our alarm that he calls us to repent as part of his good news.
Jesus is worth a complete change of mind.
More and more this year I’m hearing people say that Christmas is really for the children. Which always seems odd to me, however much I enjoy seeing the festival through my children’s eyes. Didn’t Jesus come for us all, and for all creation?
Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.
Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection.
Yet if Easter is political, so is Christmas. In an article published ten days ago in the Telegraph, Dr Stephen Holmes of St Andrew’s University argues that the Christmas story is irreducibly political. And while some may moan, even – especially! – in the same publication, surely Dr Holmes is essentially right, even if some might query certain details. The criticism to which I have just linked ludicrously puts Dr Holmes in the same categories as those who have previously poured sceptical waters on the supernatural elements of Christmas. Dr Holmes would be rather surprised by this, as someone theologically conservative enough to have been engaged at times by Spring Harvest and serves on the Council of the Evangelical Alliance!
He is right to protest against Victorian sentimentality that removes the contemporary force of the Christmas story. Mary was a single teenage mother, even if the circumstances were different. Joseph and Mary with the young Jesus were asylum seekers in Egypt. The politicians oppose Jesus. The religious establishment doesn’t get it. Power is inflicted ruthlessly upon the poor in the mechanics of the census.
Of course, some of the politicians will try to own Christmas, but they will do so with trite and inane clichés, if past form indicates anything. They too will seek to empty the story of its force.
There’s an N T Wright quote doing the rounds among Christians on Facebook right now that seems to get it right, in my opinion:
Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place… Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight.
As the old slogan puts it, if Jesus Christ is not Lord of all, then he is not Lord at all. That includes politics, and the whole shebang.