Thursday, February 25, 2021

Climbing a hillside 9) B4 Hungry and Thirsty for what?

The beatitude: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled is much easier to understand if we miss out one word!   Few of us are likely to have gone hungry or thirsty for too long because we are privileged to live where we are.  Though we may know just a little of what it means to be hungry or thirsty there will be none of the desperate longings that so many in our world suffer.

Yet, we are very aware of other kinds of longing.  I remember hearing at school about the pyramid of human need that a famous psychologist developed. 5 layers of a pyramid to describe key motivations of human need. (I googled it to refresh my memory!) At the bottom, wide and essential, are basic physical needs such as water, food and rest.  These are a matter of life and death and tragically many people live day-to-day in search of these essentials.  The next layer is security and safety.  Again physical needs that many of us can take for granted but millions of people cannot easily attain.  Even in our own country some long for these basic needs to be met. A woman was interviewed on TV who said she was on the basic wage but still had to skip meals herself so her children to eat and turn the heating off in order to survive. 'I just live from day-to-day', she said.

The next levels concerns emotional needs - belongingness and love.  Deep desire to have relationships with others. The fourth level is esteem - a feeling of accomplishment.  And at the top of the pyramid is self-actualization - achieving one's potential.   The truth is that while many of us are not striving for basic physical needs so often there is real hunger for relationships to work out, for a deeper sense of accomplishment and achieving greater potential.   Looking at this pyramid it does seem to sum up all the things that human beings strive for. 

But on the hillside, Jesus says NO.  There's a more important longing you should feel.  A deeper sense of being empty and parched and a longing to be filled. A very different sort of hunger and thirst!  How hungry and thirsty are you for RIGHTEOUSNESS asks Jesus.  And that word RIGHTEOUSNESS changes everything. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Climbing a hillside 8) B2 Knowing what sorrow means

Just a couple more aspects from the Lazarus story:

2. Sorrow can open us up  to others like nothing else.  Jesus deliberately delayed visiting Lazarus until he had died for he knew it was going to be one of the very few demonstration moments of God's power over death.  Yet, when he reaches the tomb and sees the tears of Mary and the mourners, Jesus himself breaks down into tears.  Seeing others in grief can open us up to deep empathy.  Luke Johnson comments sadly about the church: When we look at our smooth, careful controlled religious life in which we dole out sympathy and concern in thimble doses, we might ask ourselves how much we resemble Jesus who grew angry, frustrated depressed and sorrowful. He was ripped with sorrow at the death of his friend.  When we see others' sorrow, thimble doses of sympathy and concern will not do!

3. Sorrow hears the Easter promise.  The most important element in this story are the words that change everything. Everything.  When Martha chided Jesus about his lateness Jesus responds: Your brother will rise again. She replies: I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE. He who believe in me will live even though he died and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. DO YOU BELIEVE ME?   The only person who has lived and died to rise from the dead, the only person ever to have overcome death, speaks with authority as only he can about life beyond death.   This remains the critical question for mourners - Do you believe that Jesus is the Easter Lord.  Do you trust him for assurance and comfort?  Only then can this beatitude make sense

Yet, notice the extraordinary truth that Jesus can say these words but still breakdown and weep for his friend. Sorrow hears the Easter promise through tears. You can believe the Easter truth of resurrection but it won't wipe away tears and grief. We know this. Grief is inevitable but we can have faith in Jesus through the tears.  Faith in sorrow.  God's promise in sorrow is we shall know comfort  and courage even as we weep.  J.B. Phillips translates this beatitude: Happy are those who know what sorrow means for they will be given courage and comfort

Monday, February 15, 2021

Climbing a hillside 7) B2 Positives in heart-break

It doesn't take great imagination to visualize the Lazarus story.  We are told that Jesus when he hears his friend Lazarus is ill, deliberately delays his visit. He tells his disciples he is going to 'wake him out of sleep'. Something is going to happen to show God's glory. Eventually he visits and Martha meets him, chiding him: Lord if you'd been here my brother would not have died.  She returns to Mary who is surrounded by friends mourning Lazarus.  When she hears that Jesus has arrived Mary goes out and her friends thinking she is going to the tomb go with her.  She drops at the feet of Jesus: Lord if you'd been here my brother would not have died. (We've heard that before!) Weeping she leads him to the tomb with accompanied by her sorrowing friends.. 

And when Jesus reaches the tomb he too breaks down and sobs. The words 'deeply moved in spirit' are difficult to translate. It's an expression that can be used of a horse snorting and heaving.  An involuntary heartbreaking of grief. The greatest man who ever lived sobs. The sovereign Lord weeps with his friends and they say "See how he loved him"   Jesus knew about real tears in a real world.  He sympathizes with us in every way.  But how could this heart-break possibly be positive?   Let's note some issues:

1. Sorrow can open us up to God like nothing else. Sorrow is among the profoundest of our emotions. It goes deep - discovering wo we are, and why we are living as we are.  The one thing you have been certain of sorrow is that it is not trivial.  Leon Bloy, a French novelist and a Christian once wrote: There are places in our hearts which do not yet exist and it is necessary for suffering to penetrate there in order that they may come into being. 

The singer Mica Paris was featured in Songs of Praise recently about her faith. With her sister alongside she was asked about how she coped with the death of their younger brother Jason, aged 22, who was murdered in 2001.  Mica said: 'You know death is a game changer. You are never the same after that.  You either want to die with the person or you want to change the world because of their death.  And it took a long time but God is the real comforter'.

Sorrow can lead us to new, deep places to discover God's comfort and peace in fresh ways. However, you can keep suffering at arm's length. I think of Stan whose robust cheerfulness made a joke of nearly everything.  He said he had a matter-of-fact approach to life. When a mate died he raised a glass and told a funny story.  When he was told he had incurable cancer he said it was no big deal. Now in his seventies he'd had a good run.  And knowing my faith commitment he said: As for the church and all that I have no time whatsoever. All they ever want is your money'.

In this beatitude Jesus does not want us to deny pain and sorrow.  For when hearts are truly emptied and wounded, made vulnerable, then our Lord can slip in with the very pain.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Climbing a hillside 6) B2 Facing bereavement

Many preachers will testify that a sermon series can be planned out weeks in advance only to find just how relevant it is on one Sunday. Last week several people in mourning contacted me, sometimes in tears, because of sudden bereavements. And all this grief was on top of passing the tragic milestone as the country exceeded 100,000 Covid19 deaths. Few of us do not know families in mourning. Our church fellowship certainly knows sorrow. . 

So, here was a sad, raw context for hearing the second Beatitude: Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted   What a jolt this is!  Coming hard on Happy are those who are humble-minded for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  How can those who mourn possibly be happy? It seems as though Jesus wants us to know from the outset that his new way of being is no escapism, no denial of reality. That Christianity does not somehow cushion us from sorrow.  Rather he wants us to face the grim facts of death and loss.  The word 'mourning' is strong - it means tears, grief and pain. One commentator says it's sorrow that pierces the heart.  Obviously it's grief at the loss of loved ones.

But bereavement can also mourning for loss in situations.  One reading was Isaiah 61:1-3:..To comfort those who bestow the oil of joy instead of mourning. While this can relate to individual grief it is clear from the context that it addresses a whole people who grieve over Israel's and theirs exile. Who long for Israel to return to how it used to be before they were taken away in captivity. For the temple to be restored, for life to go back to living like it was in normal times. For the best of good times to return. And that sounds incredibly relevant in the pandemic now. Because alongside all the loss of life, so many grieve loss of jobs, homes, dreams and hopes, so many suffer depression and worse. This is mourning too.

To help us understand this beatitude I also chose the story of Lazarus in John 11:17-37. It reveals so much about mourning as well as the comfort that God gives.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Car weirdness 2)

Because the scraping of my car revealed its grimy condition I set about cleaning it (on a break between showers! Delighted with the restoration of a gleaming white vehicle I remembered buying a plastic car cover from Aldi's middle aisle (you know the one?) many months ago.  Designed to fit a mid-size vehicle I unpacked it and found it covered the car with some room to spare.  I wondered why I had not done this before.  A sparkling car  was now protected from the elements on the driveway.

At 3:45 am the following morning we were both woken by a very disturbing and extremely loud noise.  Difficult to describe because I had never heard anything like it. I could only imagine that it was a helicopter hovering directly overhead. A chopping banging whooping noise sounded like rotors turning.  It was very close and loud enough to disturb neighbours. Looking out of the side window we saw that the car cover was in ferocious battle with a sudden squall of violent wind. Its loose fitting allowed this violent wind to rush inside and inflate it like some enormous kite which remained tethered at the front of the car. It was alive threatening to do damage with extraordinary noise and strength.  

Donning dressing gowns Carol and I fought the high wind and its manic impact on the car cover, managing to hold onto it and trap it into a bundle that we could safely drop inside the house.  Exhausted we went back to bed and resolved never to use the cover again!  And with even greater respect for the power of wind. 

It's a bit of a leap from a rather banal experience, but wind in Scripture also means breath and speaks of the Spirit of God on the move.  But note that on the day of Pentecost, suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven (Acts 2:2).. It was a sound only.  Just as well


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Car weirdness 1)

Long-suffering readers know that my blog can veer between the serious and the seriously odd.  I am due to preach on another beatitude shortly so some more serious stuff will emerge shortly but I have to report a strange event.

In lockdown we have rarely used the car which has remained covered in grime for months.  But a medical appointment required that we venture out and park in a city carpark recently.  With care, requiring a repeat maneouvre or two (!) I parked neatly between the white lines.  Returning an hour later I could see before we reached our car that the neighbouring car had formed a very close relationship with ours.  In fact, getting closer the cars  actually looked co-joined as his drive forward had nudged into the side of our car .

The driver, a man in his 30's, had his window down and appeared desperate. 'Please help" he cried. 'I'm not very good parking in tight spaces and I've judged this all wrong and I just don't know which way to turn to back out without causing damage.'   I wondered how long he had been in this position before we turned up!  Even a slight turning wheels the wrong way threatened further damage.  Cautiously, I began giving instructions trying to ensure he turned gently enough while reversing to clear both vehicles. Nail-biting stuff.

Of course I couldn't wait to see what damage he had done to the side door.  Along the bottom, in a long gash, the dirt had been wiped away by his front tyre.  It looked alarming.  A wide long white streak!  As I bent to examine it, the released driver shot off into the distance. He wasn't going to wait! Extraordinarily, it must have been his front tyre that nudged along creating what seemed to be a major dent but which only left a minor indentation.   I was glad I was given patience with him (!) though I don't think he came out of the incident very well!