The language ‘kingdom of God’ is a problem today. Most obviously it’s a problem if you live in a republic. How do you relate to the image? One American Christian writer faced that difficulty and decided to paraphrase it in a way that he thought maintained the impact of the expression. He called it ‘the revolution of God’.
And even in a monarchy like the United Kingdom, we have trouble relating to the phrase ‘kingdom of God’. In our nation, the Queen acts on the advice of her ministers. The sovereign’s powers have been circumscribed over history. We, too, need to understand that when John the Baptist comes proclaiming the kingdom of God – the very theme that will be central to the ministry of Jesus – we are talking about a revolution. The revolution of God.
Indeed, ‘kingdom of God’ was revolutionary language in New Testament times. And our mission this morning is to consider what kind of revolution John was heralding, and which would arrive in Jesus.
Because make no mistake, if our Advent preparations consist merely of tinsel, presents and mince pies we have missed its true meaning. This is the season when we prepare for revolution.
And that is essential for us to grasp. We have taken it as a truism for so long that the kingdom Jesus came to preach was not the one that good Jews of his day longed for. That’s a truism because it’s true! But if we Christians aren’t careful, we become smug or complacent about that, and we miss the fact that the kingdom of God is still revolutionary for us. Why? How?
Firstly, the revolution of God is an outsider revolution. John is not part of the establishment. No priest or scribe he, even though he was the son of Zechariah who ministered in the Jerusalem Temple. John puts all that behind him and goes to the wilderness. No flowing priestly robes for him, he goes for true shabby chic (without having it professionally distressed) in his choice of camel hair and a leather belt. I have joked in past years that he might have been the inventor of the ‘Bush tucker trial’ on ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ with his diet of locusts and honey, but actually he wouldn’t have been impressed at all by celebrities. In fact, given the scathing words he addresses to the Pharisees and Sadducees here I can’t see him getting on the phone voting to save them.
Here’s the way God’s revolution often works. It comes from the margins, not the centre. It is rare for God to renew his church and reform society in a movement that comes through the structures of power in the church itself. He tends to be at work on the outer boundaries. He tends to be stirring things up among those who do not have access to traditional sources of power or authority. He takes delight in using nobodies. It’s not just the aims of God’s kingdom that are revolutionary, it is the methods, too.
And if that is true, then it is time for hope to spring up in the pews of the church. Hope – and perspective. Do not wait around, expecting the ministers and Local Preachers necessarily to be the standard bearers of God’s revolution. I would love to be such a person, but God may not choose me. Do not assume that because of my office God will somehow automatically choose me. That is by no means necessarily God’s way. He may come in power upon and through those of you who think you are nothing in the eyes of the church, let alone the eyes of God. It’s what he did, using John the Baptist in the wilderness. It’s what he did, having his son born in poverty and laid in a manger.
So I invite you this Advent to consider the thought that you are as likely as anyone to be the kind of disciple that Jesus would enlist to do something significant in the revolution that we call his kingdom. Do not let the disappointments of everyday life blind you to the possibility that God may choose to use people who are among those who are unexpected, the ones who would never pass the selection criteria for the ministry, the ones who never pass exams, the ones who have never been in the limelight or held a significant rôle in society.
Secondly, it’s a homecoming revolution. Listen to the language of homecoming:
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.” (Verse 3)
The Lord is coming home, is the message. He is coming to take his rightful place on his throne. That is why we can say the kingdom is coming.
And it was relevant to John’s audience. These words are quoted from Isaiah 40, where the prophecies of Israel’s return from exile in Babylon begin. It is no accident that scriptures with that theme were relevant to John and Jesus. For in their day, the Jews believed they were still in exile. Not geographically, for they were in the Promised Land, but because they did not rule it themselves on behalf of God, but living under a foreign power, Rome, they felt they were still effectively in exile. Many felt God had deserted them. Some rabbis had said that after the final prophet in the Old Testament had spoken, the Holy Spirit had left Israel.
So imagine what it is like for them to hear that God is making a homecoming. He will reign – and the Romans will not. He will be present in his kingly power, not absent. This is good news. In fact, it really is good news in their terms, because the word ‘gospel’, which we translate as good news, comes from an ancient practice of proclaiming the great things the king had done. God’s return to Judah and especially to Zion is a Jewish form of gospel.
Yet now see these things not merely as Jewish gospel two thousand years ago, but in the light of the One who did come to Zion, Jesus the Messiah. He comes to reign. He comes and has the title ‘Lord’. He is Lord, and by implication, Caesar is not Lord. The Romans would not have the final say in this world, and nor will the powers that be today, be they political, military, economic or media. Like Jesus was to say to Pilate, they only have power because it has been granted to them from above. The true Lord of our lives and of the whole cosmos is Jesus himself.
So we rejoice that the powers of our day will one day have had their day, while Jesus reigns – not from Zion but from a hill outside where he was lifted up; not in a temple made by human hands but in the midst of a temple made of humans; not in the precincts of Jerusalem but at the Mount of Olives, from where he ascended and where he will appear again.
The authorities of today are put in their place. They can posture and pout as much as they like, but it is all vanity and we can laugh at it, because Jesus is the true Lord.
We can also resist their seductions, in the name of Jesus the coming Lord. It will anger them, and it will cost us, but their days are numbered.
And furthermore, if Jesus is the presence of God coming to us – Emmanuel, God with us, as we remember at this time of year – then we are no longer alone. God has no longer deserted his people. By sheer grace, God is with us. Yes, granted, God hides himself from us for seasons, but he has come to be with us and never to forsake us.
Thirdly and finally, it’s a revolution of repentance. Those who flood out from the big towns to John’s outsider location (verse 5) confess their sins and are baptised (verse 6). John says he baptises for repentance (verse 11). And when the religious élite come to seek baptism too – are they like modern politicians jumping on the coat-tails of a popular phenomenon? – he reserves his choicest insults for them:
‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Verses 7b-10)
This is a kingdom where status counts for nothing. All that matters is the opposite of clinging to status: humility; the humility that leads to repentance. A repentance that does more than say sorry; a repentance that makes straight our crooked paths to be fit for the coming of the Lord.
This is a kingdom where no-one can rest on religious laurels. What could have been truer for good Jews than to trace their spiritual heritage back to Abraham? Yes, that strictly was where God began to form a pilgrim people for himself, but it could not be claimed as a badge. You could not hold up your ‘child of Abraham’ laminate on your lanyard and automatically be granted entry into God’s kingdom. There had to be substance, and that was shown by a willingness to change.
There has to be the substance of repentance for us, too, and it needs to be on-going. John could come to us and say, ‘do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Wesley as our father’”’ We are not a heritage site designed for spiritual tourists, we are a colony of God’s kingdom.
Let us beware what we are building on. In one previous church, a group of people objected to the use of modern worship songs alongside traditional hymns. (Those who enjoyed the contemporary songs were more generous in their attitude to the tried and tested gems from the past.) The final straw for one of this group came after I had left that church, when they decided to replace the pews with chairs. She and her husband resigned their membership. Her understanding of faith was based on the style of her heritage, and certainly not on the spiritual substance of what Wesley wrote about in his hymns.
So let us ask ourselves this question: when was the last time we allowed God to challenge our actions, our thoughts, our words or our lifestyles? Have we permitted God to effect a revolution in our own lives, such that he may use as agents of his revolution in the world?
There are many popular images of the church. It is common to say that it is a hospital for the sick and the sinners, and I certainly understand the church like that. But I think we also ought to ask what kind of church we are. Would it not also be reasonable to conclude that the church is a field hospital, healing its wounded so that they may be strong for the battle with those forces that foolishly resist the coming revolution? Here God binds up the injured nobodies and sends them to herald his kingdom from the outside, not the centre. Here in the church, his revolutionaries know the presence of Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord, following his instructions in his presence.
Have we signed up for the revolution? Because that is what John – and later Jesus – called us to embrace.
No, not that one.
I first met Mike Burke at Trinity College, Bristol between 1986 and 1989. He was a guitar-toting, wisecracking Anglican ordinand, and I was a Methodist wondering where on earth God was calling me. When we left, we all had to pen fifty words about ourselves for a magazine sent to college supporters. It was no surprise when Mike wrote that he had fulfilled an ambition to get U2 played in college chapel.
Then we lost touch. He went off to his curacy in Sheffield, and I returned to the dark bowels of Methodism.
Years later (2001, I think), we bumped into each other again at an Evangelical Alliance conference in Cardiff. By then, he was a vicar in Gloucestershire. This time, we kept in touch. Often it was Mike sending me emails that I found ridiculously funny and my wife (who doesn’t share the same sense of humour) found ridiculous.
In recent years, Mike has come out of parish ministry. He now networks for the Church Mission Society with local congregations. He has used his creative gifts to turn the difficulties of traditional church life today and the need to find new forms of missional church to reach today’s cultures into a witty and poignant novel.
It makes sense from my perspective to communicate missional thinking in a narrative format. Much of the literature talks about the importance of story, so let’s use story! The only other example I have ever encountered in this field (perhaps there are others) has been Brian McLaren‘s ‘A New Kind of Christian’ trilogy. However, McLaren has in my opinion more of an agenda for revising classical theology than Mike does. Moreover, the American church situation is considerably different from the British contexts.
I know I’m biassed, but do read Mike’s book. You will find a healthy and humorous dose of reality, right through to the inner thoughts of the clergy. If you’ve ever wondered, then buy this!
Oh, and his first cultural quote is from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. You can’t go wrong.
My one gripe would be with Highland Books, the publisher. They seem to have laid off a proof reader in place of a computer spell-checker. It was The Forsyte Saga, not the Forsyth Saga (Brucie, you can have a rest). A quantity of paper is stationery, not stationary. Something you can’t quite catch is elusive, not illusive.
Although I have just linked to it on Amazon, they were unable to fulfil my order, but I went through Amazon Marketplace to the trusty Book Depository, who sent me a copy quickly.
‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.’
Many of us think of Francis Bacon’s famous words when we read this account of Jesus before Pilate. But we have a problem: the Lectionary omits verse 38 where Pilate says, ‘What is truth?’ for reasons that are beyond me. Well, unless it is to do with the political correctness that afflicts the Lectionary in some places. Maybe Pilate has to be rehabilitated.
But aside from strange editorial decisions in the compilation of the Lectionary, this is a difficult passage, however familiar it seems. We read it today, because today, the Sunday before Advent, is the Feast of Christ the King, also known as Stir-Up Sunday, from the famous collect
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And hence Jane’s piece at the beginning of the service with the cake! If today were just about cake, we’d have few problems with it – maybe it would be suitable for Back To Church Sunday!
But the kingship of Jesus is a problem. It’s a problem throughout the Gospels, and it’s a particular problem here. The kingship of Jesus is a problem for everyone who encounters him. By considering how King Jesus is a problem for different people, we shall see how his kingship challenges us all.
Firstly, and obviously, King Jesus is a problem for Pilate. To return to Francis Bacon’s words, I don’t think he is ‘jesting Pilate’ at all. Pontius Pilate has a serious political problem here. As a Roman Governor, he is used to being able to throw his weight around, using the occupying army to subdue the locals. His trouble is that he has done it too heavily-handed once too often, having desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish leaders had sent a deputation to Rome to protest, with the result that Pilate was on a final warning. However aggressive the Roman Empire was, they saw no need to cause what they believed to be unnecessary provocation in the lands they conquered.
So when the Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to him, Pilate has a big problem. Yet to be fair, he starts from a position of justice: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (verse 33); ‘What have you done?’ (verse 35)
Yet by the end of the interview, we know Pilate, like a politician today, will cave into compromise and short term expediency. Throughout the conversation, he can’t get a handle on who Jesus is. He doesn’t fit his categories. Because Pontius Pilate only understands one language: the language of politics. He’s expecting Jesus to be a revolutionary. Well, he is, but not in the sense Pilate expects: Jesus is no terrorist. Not only does Jesus’ lifestyle deny such an idea, he contradicts it in his reply:
‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ (Verse 36)
Some people seize on this as a sign that obeying the kingship of Jesus means we don’t get involved in politics. They quote it as ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. Therefore, they argue, since we are part of that kingdom, we should not get embroiled in dirty, everyday politics: that’s a different kingdom.
But what Jesus says is perhaps better rendered, ‘My kingship is not from this world’. He’s not advocating withdrawal from the world, he’s saying that he does things differently. His kingship comes from heaven, where justice is not established by force or violence. His kingship is therefore radically different from the tactics employed by Roman Emperors or Jewish Zealots.
Jesus doesn’t bail out of politics: it is about the common good, and he cares about that. But his kingship redraws how his disciples will get involved. They will do so peaceably, not forcefully.
What does that mean for us? Not all of us are directly involved in politics. Apart from anything else, I believe it means that if we live under the reign of King Jesus, we conduct ourselves in public in a peaceable way. We do not shout, scream, demand, manipulate and scheme. We speak up more for the poor and the voiceless than for ourselves. We do so passionately, but without aggression. Is that possible? Jesus managed it.
Secondly, King Jesus is a problem for the Jewish leaders. There’s a lot of reference in John’s Gospel to ‘the Jews’. Tragically, down the centuries some Christians (and others, such as Hitler) have used it to justify prejudice and violence against Jewish people.
However, John does not use ‘the Jews’ to mean the entire Jewish race at the time. He normally uses it to refer to a distinct group, and he is clearly aware of other people in the story – not least Jesus – who are also Jewish but are not included under ‘the Jews’. Mostly, it stands for the religious authorities who are in opposition to Jesus and his ministry. It is these people, designated ‘the Jews’, who have handed Jesus over to Pilate (verse 32).
What’s their problem? Simple. Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations. Jesus is at odds with most of the major groupings in the Judaism of his time. He won’t cosy up to the Roman authorities like the wealthy Sadducees and some of the priestly classes. He won’t use the Scriptures as a weapon to exclude people in the way the scribes and Pharisees do. He won’t retreat to a secluded, pure community like the Essenes. And as we’ve already noted, he rejects the violent revolution of the Zealots. He just doesn’t fit.
So what are you going to do with a misfit who keeps causing you trouble? You’ll try to get rid of him. The traditional Jewish punishment of stoning was still sometimes spontaneously used, as we see from the story of the woman caught in adultery . But around AD 30, Rome took away the Jewish right to execute someone. But it further suited the purposes of the religious establishment to have Jesus crucified, because then by being hung on a tree he would be subject to a curse, according to Deuteronomy. It’s sobering what lengths human beings will go to in order to exclude someone they regard as a misfit.
I’ve talked before in sermons about the way we wrongly fit Jesus into our own preferred image and can’t cope with the fact that he won’t be confined to it. Recently, I read something helpful that a friend posted on Facebook. Pam is an American Christian (a Methodist minister, in fact) who recently returned to the USA from the UK. She has obviously been listening to the famous American radio show ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, hosted by the author Garrison Keillor, author of the well-known series of books that began with ‘Lake Wobegon Days’. Keillor, a Christian of Lutheran and now Episcopalian background, tells fictionalised stories based on life in rural Minnesota. They often draw on his My friend Pam quoted a gem from a recent broadcast by Keillor:
Jesus came to earth and disappointed a lot of people.
When you follow Jesus, he will disappoint you. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were quickly disappointed by him. He won’t conform, and life with him will not always go the way we want it to. For he is king, and it is his rule that matters.
The question therefore comes, what will we do with our disappointment? Will we attempt to banish or exclude him, like the Jewish establishment of two thousand years ago? Or will we continue to follow him, mixing joy and disappointment? It’s a hard choice, but let’s remember that only those who continued with Jesus through disappointment got to see him in his risen glory.
Thirdly, King Jesus is a problem for us today. It’s simply this: even if Jesus radically reinterpets kingship into a peaceful form, it’s still a reworking based on a notion of kingship that has very little equivalent in our world today. We may still have a monarchy, but our Queen is meant to act on the advice of her ministers. Largely, therefore, she gives Royal Assent to Bills in Parliament that have been shaped by politicians. She retains certain powers, but they are much diminished. She is no absolute monarch. Long gone are the days when we spoke about ‘the divine right of kings’.
And in other cultures, the gap is even greater. How do you think about King Jesus when you live in a republic with a President as head of state? The American Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren has spoken of his cultural struggle with the biblical references to kingship and the kingdom of God. He suggests an alternative. We should refer to ‘the revolution of God’.
I think that’s helpful! If following King Jesus joins us up to the revolution of God, then one thing is certain: we are not in for a quiet, cosy time, at least not in the way some church communities seem to envisage. We are called instead to a dynamic, challenging, risky way of life.
A risk-free existence can look very attractive for a while. Although the fine line between risk-free and unbearably boring is easily crossed. But those who want risk-free should never become Christians. To follow Jesus means risking all to follow him. I was recently reminded that the Church of Scotland report ‘Church Without Walls’ says that the essence of church is ‘People with Jesus at the centre, travelling wherever Jesus takes us.’ The whole fresh expressions initiative is about allowing Jesus to take us to those whom our existing churches do not reach, and working with him, as he forms a new group of people, who are willing to go wherever he takes them. That inevitably involves risk.
Because that is the logical conclusion of the other two issues we have thought about. Risk. It will be risky to follow King Jesus in the ways I have suggested. People who campaign for the poor in public life and do so in a peaceable way may end up on crosses. People who are willing to keep following Jesus even through disappointments are not signing up for a safe and quiet life, even if they do live with the hope of resurrection. But we remember how Jesus finally answered Pilate:
‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ (Verse 37)
Nothing else is the way of truth.
 Richard Burridge, John (The People’s Bible Commentary), p215.
Mark’s favourite word at present is ‘Why?’ We had heard that all children go through a ‘Why?’ phase. Mark’s, however, is different from what other parents have generally told us. It isn’t a case of ‘Why must I do that?’ or ‘Why not?’ It’s more academic. He deploys ‘Why?’ to ask questions about the world. And when we’ve answered why one thing happens, he asks why that is so. Relentlessly he pushes back our logic, sucking our brains dry. On Friday afternoon in the car, he wouldn’t stop in his quest to know more about speed cameras. I am convinced that one day soon, we’ll have to explain the Big Bang to him. And questions are at the heart of our Lectionary Gospel reading today. The Pharisees send a lawyer to ask Jesus a question. Jesus asks the Pharisees a question. Furthermore, it’s the climax to a series of questions between Jesus and his critics. Questions – and how we handle them – are vital in spiritual growth.
So today I want as much to explore the use of questions in general as I do the particular questions in this exchange.
People Questioning Jesus
There are all sorts of reasons, good and bad, for asking Jesus or God a question. The Virgin Mary asked a question of the Archangel Gabriel when he turned up with his world-shattering news of her pregnancy. However, it was a question allied to a spirit of obedience to God. When we question out of a desire to pursue our faith and discipleship further, that is a good thing.
Job questioned God as a result of his suffering. He didn’t get an answer to this question about why he as an innocent person suffered. He only learned that, yes, innocent people do suffer. And although he receives a kind of rebuke from God, he is nevertheless rewarded for a faith that is not contradicted by asking hard questions.
Even the lawyer in this story might have had good intentions. In Mark’s account of this story (which is most likely Matthew’s source), Jesus commends him for not being far from the kingdom of God. Yet in Matthew, he is just out to test Jesus on behalf of the Pharisees (verses 34-45). Was he a stooge of the Pharisees? We don’t know.
What we do know is that the Pharisees had unholy reasons for questioning Jesus. Matthew is only interested in noting this sense of conflict, where the Pharisees not only think they can put one over Jesus, they are keen to succeed where their rivals the Sadducees failed (verse 34). Their motives are not good. This is all about pride and putting one over their opponents.
When I first studied Theology, it was among Anglican ordinands. I had more theological knowledge than some of them, due to my Local Preacher training. There were two occasions during early lectures when I asked questions of the tutors, less to learn and more to show off. Once it was when a New Testament lecturer was giving an outline of Luke’s Gospel, and I made sure everyone knew I realised that Luke gave a special place to women. The other was in an Old Testament class, where the tutor recommended a particular Bible atlas and I said, “Oh, the one you edited?” They were unworthy moments and I am ashamed of them.
If we are not careful, we might ask questions that are less to do with wanting to draw nearer to Christ and more to do with pride. They might involve puffing up ourselves and putting others down. Before we question Jesus, it is worth questioning ourselves. What are our motives? Do I ask out of humility, a desire to learn and if necessary a spirit of repentance? If so, I am asking a question in such a way that spiritual growth has a real chance to happen.
But if I want to show off in front of others, or if I am deluded enough to think that with my intellect I can impress God, then the chances of growth are less than zero. Indeed, to have such concerns is to show no interest in growing in grace.
What, then, of the actual question here? The lawyer asks for one ‘greatest commandment’, but Jesus gives him two. Jesus won’t be confined by our questions. Sometimes we ask the wrong questions.
Let me make brief observations about each of his two ‘great commandments’. With regard to the first commandment, I find it interesting to read this passage in a week when we have heard about the first atheist advertising ever to appear on London buses. One of its most prominent supporters and financial backers is – surprise, surprise – Richard Dawkins. In supporting the campaign, he was stupid enough to say this:
“This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think – and thinking is anathema to religion.”
Thinking is anathema to religion? What he surely means is, you haven’t thought unless you’ve come to the same conclusions as me. Sixth Form arrogance. Against that background, I read Jesus saying that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The word ‘mind’ is additional to the original (although the Hebrew will have implied that the total person is involved in loving God). I cannot find God by thinking, but I can dedicate my thinking to God as an act of loving worship. Be trusting of God, but the Sunday School song never said, ‘Jesus wants me for a zombie’.
The second commandment is about love of neighbour. One of the problems with the atheist bus campaign – along with religious advertising, too – is that it reduces everything to slogans. That’s exactly what Jesus doesn’t do. The proof of his ‘campaign’ to love God is not a slogan. Proof comes in love of neighbour.
In early September, the American ministry journal Leadership has this poll on its website:
When it comes to evidences of true worship at your church, which of the following do you pay most attention to?
- People singing enthusiastically.
- People praying fervently.
- People fully attentive to the sermon.
- People coming for confession or prayer afterward.
- People committing or recommitting themselves to Christ.
- People serving others during the week.
- People so captivated that they invite others to join them at church.
Other: click here to let us know what indicates to you that people are worshiping
Much as I like enthusiastic singing, fervent prayer and close attention to the sermon, I can’t understand any measurement of true Christian love that is less than a measurement of action that happens afterwards. People who put their faith into practice after church – they can ask questions.
Jesus Questioning People
In my early years as a Christian, a popular slogan was ‘Jesus is the answer’. There was a famous song with that title by the gospel singer Andraé Crouch. It’s a comforting song about the hope troubled people can find in Christ, and of course I believe that.
However, I have come to believe also that it is just as true to say that ‘Jesus is the question’. He didn’t always spoon-feed his listeners. He told parables that would only make sense to the spiritually curious and committed.
And in this passage, Jesus questions his critics. He throws in a theological conundrum. It’s a little biblical hand-grenade that is meant to blow apart their preconceived ideas, their limited vision and their prejudices. In summary, it’s this: if the Messiah is the son of David (as was commonly accepted), how can David call one of his own descendants ‘Lord’ (verses 41-45)? The problem was that in Jewish tradition a father could not call his son ‘Lord’. Yet here was Scripture saying just that. And if it were true, what possible grounds could there be for denying the Lordship of the Messiah? And if Jesus were the Messiah, what would that mean for the Pharisees’ treatment of him?
To change the metaphor, it’s checkmate to Jesus (verse 46).
And Jesus is still about the business of asking questions as a means of either eliciting spiritual growth or letting people confirm the hardness of their hearts. Sometimes, we are seeking his guidance and he doesn’t appear to be answering. That may be because he is making us wait for an answer, but is it also possible we are not hearing what he is saying? So set are we on receiving an answer that will make everything fit into place that we miss what he is saying. Instead of giving us an answer, Jesus replies with a question.
Not only that, it’s something Jesus calls his followers to do, too. Take the rôle of the minister, for example. One traditional expectation of a minister is that this is the person who will dream the big dreams, see the great visions and impart them to the congregation. One Anglican rector friend told me he believed his job was to be like Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets of stone.
But what if that isn’t the minister’s calling? Suppose instead the minister invites people to engage their situation with a holy imagination? That may be more effective, because it will help call forth what God is already doing in the midst of the congregation.
Or take the rather modern preoccupation that the exposition of Scripture in a sermon or Bible Study group is meant to be a way of reading answers off the page to today’s dilemmas, or coming up with a set of biblical principles on how to make life work. Is that right? Might it not be more faithful to the Bible if instead the minister preaches the great story of Scripture to the people, saying, this is ‘the story we find ourselves in‘. If that is the case, then how do we see our world? [Source for last 3 paragraphs]
If we allow Jesus to question us, he might shake up some of our cherished beliefs and practices. Those moments when we sense a discomfort, that something doesn’t quite fit – those are times when we might well need to be especially attentive to the voice of Christ. Is he asking us a question that will take us on a journey into deeper biblical faithfulness and away from those human traditions which have become unhelpful?
I believe Jesus is asking us big questions about our fitness for mission in today’s world. Do our structures, traditions, practices and even some of our cherished doctrines which we clam to have ‘received’ fit with a biblical reflection on where we are today? I for one am not sure they do, and I believe Jesus may be asking us awkward questions.
But then that’s just the sort of thing that might preoccupy me as a minister. For others, it might be other questions. He might be asking many people about their place, situation and calling in life. The spiritual writer Frederick Buechner observed that our call is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. If some of us are misfits on those grounds, then is Jesus asking us challenging questions about where we might best serve him? Has Jesus given us a passion for something that we are not using? If not, then what questions might he be asking us?
The alternative to Jesus asking us questions is simply for him to give us pre-packaged answers. But if he does that, then that is the end of the conversation. Orders have been given from on high, and that’s it. Now he has a perfect right to do that. He is Lord. But I suspect he often asks us questions instead of giving us answers, precisely so that he can engage us. Questions properly given and received promote conversation. Jesus asks us questions so that he can stimulate a combination of prayer and action.
And come to think of it, aren’t prayer and action the very things that drive us to ask the best questions of him? Will prayer and action be the reasons we have a relationship of questioning faith with our questioning Lord?
Neil Young was interviewed in November’s Word Magazine. They questioned him about his new CD Prairie Wind and in particular about a song called ‘When God Made Me’. Apparently it sounds like a hymn and the interviewer, Robert Sandall, goes on to ask him whether he is a Christian. He replies:
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. I certainly don’t say, don’t be a Christian. Everybody needs something to hang their hat on. But I really don’t buy into any particular story. The Indians had something going on with their ‘great spirit’ as a term for God. They were more concerned with the trees, the grasslands, the animals and a sense of balance. It’s a pagan thing and there’s nothing bad about paganism. It only became bad because of the insecurity of the church. That song is about the self-righteousness that makes certain people think God created man in his own image. What a conceited idea! What about the squirrel? What happened to him? We’re all here together, we’re all nature. One big thing.’
A quote, then, that may continue to give the impression that this blog is turning into the squirrel blog (see last two entries). It would be easy to be smug with Young on his views, given that in the same interview he makes much of the importance of the full moon. ‘I am a strong believer in the full moon as a good time to be creative so I try to record all of my albums based on that timing. It’s an old thing in farming: if you plant on a full moon you’re going to get a good crop … when the moon starts waning is when everything starts falling apart … Look at the way the moon affects the water in tides. Since we’re mainly water we’re bound to be affected if we open ourselves up to it.’
Rather than dismiss Young due to those apparently strange views it would be better to look seriously at what he says. Of course as a Christian I don’t believe that the doctrine of God making humankind in his image is about conceit or arrogance: it’s an act of pure grace and it should not make us careless with the rest of creation. But the problem is, that is precisely the way it has been taken for centuries and we now have an environmental problem. It is an idea that still lingers in extreme conservative circles. I recall a few months ago reading a transcript online of an American TV interview featuring both Brian McLaren and Tim LaHaye in which the latter said that the environment was made for man – not a view McLaren shared.
Some Christians have wanted to anchor their doctrine of creation in a different place due to this misuse – see for example Creation Through Wisdom by Celia Deane-Drummond. But maybe we also need to rediscover the imago dei and interpret it in a more humble way. And such an interpretation will not be solely the task of lectures, seminars, books and journals, but the interpretation seen in human flesh. We need to hold this together with Young’s statement that ‘We’re all here together, we’re all nature’, except that I would just change that last word from ‘nature’ to ‘creation’.
We’re getting ready to move house soon, and have lots of stuff to sell. Much of it is going on eBay. Today I had an email from them, congratulating me on getting my fifth positive feedback. ‘Only five more to go,’ they say, ‘and you’ll have your first Feedback Star!’ (Mmm, can’t wait.)
Then comes the theology. Yes: theology. ‘Your Feedback reinforces the eBay value that ‘People are basically good.”
My Christian ears pricked up at this, and so I looked up the values. They’re very positive:
We believe people are basically good.
We believe everyone has something to contribute.
We believe that an honest, open environment can bring out the best in people.
We recognise and respect everyone as a unique individual.
We encourage you to treat others the way you want to be treated.
In reverse order, they’re pretty Christian. Treat others how you want to be treated sounds pretty Christlike. Respecting everyone as an unique individual for me comes from humans being created ‘in the image of God’. An open, honest environment reminds me of Paul’s words about ‘speaking the truth in love’. Everyone having something to contribute is redolent of the idea that all have gifts.
The difficult one for many Christians is the first one, where I came in: ‘People are basically good’. Classically we’ve said ‘People are basically bad’. But as one of the characters in Brian McLaren’s novel ‘The Last Word And The Word After That’ says,
“I’m not denying the old doctrine of original sin, but it can be abused in a way that shifts the focus away from human injsutice, oppression, and suffering on Planet Earth. It shifts the focus to getting your hiundquarters into heaven after you leave Planet Earth. So it makes you worry less about how bad humanity is and more about how mad the deity is.”
So there has been a shift in more postmodern thinkers to a creation-centred spirituality, but which runs the equal and opposite danger of under-estimating the human capacity for evil. Just how do we keep the two in tension? It’s one of those paradoxes with which Christians always need to live.