Saturday, November 30, 2013

How Do You Start The Story and What Does That Say? From Eternity To Here (Part 1) John 1:1-18

Where do you start the story and what does that say?

Orson Well’s classic movie ‘Citizen Kane’ starts outsides the gates. We stare through the bars into this mysterious mansion. There is one light in the window of an upstairs room. Slowly the camera moves us into that room and we witness the dying words of it occupant “Rose Bud”. For the rest of the movie we hear testimony about this influential newspaper tycoon’s life.  What does rose bud mean, can it unlock the conundrum, the paradox of citizen Kane, can it take us past the gates to understand the man.

Where do you start the story and what does it say?

In 1977 we were introduced to the star wars universe. The Twentieth century fox logo, then a quick title frame announcing this is a Lucasfilm production.  A blank screen and then those words ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away accompanied by that now famous fanfare’. But wait this is episode four the new hope… as the scene is set in that most iconic roll up of words.

We would have to wait twenty one years… when people lined up round the block at cinemas, paid their money went in sat down and watched the movie trailer, then left before the main feature, went outside and lined up all over again. Another set of words “every generation has its legend… every journey has its first step… every saga has a beginning” and amidst snippets of the movie, setting the scene, we witness that moment when Anacin Skywalker is introduced to Obi wan Kenobi.

In an interview George Lucas gave about the launch of Episode one he said “in 1977 the movie going public was not ready for the dark story of the fall of Anacin Skywalker, so he started in episode IV and told the story of his redemption, now he believed they were ready” … and of course us sci-fi buffs love a good prequel.

Where do you start the story and what does that say?

All of the gospels choose to start the story of Jesus Christ in different places and different ways. This year, I want to invite you to reflect on and prepare for celebrating the coming of Christ by looking at how John chooses to start the story of Jesus and what that has to say to us. The series is called from Eternity to Here, because John invites us to go way back… beyond the stable in Bethlehem, beyond angelic visitations to Mary and Joseph, beyond Zechariah, John the Baptists father, back even beyond Jesus whakapapa, that links him to king David and to Abraham  all the way back… to stare off into the eternity of “in the beginnings” and to see that in Jesus; the Word that was, that was with God and that was God, came here, he took on flesh and dwelt amongst us. Showing us what God is like and bringing his truth and grace in all its fullness to us.

In the beginnings, echoes the words of Genesis 1;1 and invites  us to see that here is a continuation of the story of God. The focus just like in Genesis is first and foremost on God. On God who was there before anything else. But John introduces us first and foremost to The Word. RVG Tasker says that the unique contribution of the prologue of the gospel of John is that “it reveals the Word of God not merely as an attribute of God, but as a distinct person within the Godhead, dwelling with the creator before creation began.” John starts his gospel by pointing to Jesus divine origins.

Logos is the Greek translated here as Word, and in our text orientated western world we may have the idea of a written word, but Leonard sweet, says that we miss something of what is portrayed here and maybe we would be best to think of the voice of God, or even the song of God. He tells a joke to illustrate how this fits with the incarnation. A church receptionist used to answer the phone “Jesus loves You, Alice speaking, can I help you ” one day she was very tired and got confused so she answered the phone “Alice loves you, Jesus speaking, can I help you.” As you’d expect there was silence on the other end of the phone for a moment and then the person replied “I thought you’d sound different”. Maybe we are not ready for God’s word to speak in a human voice but he does.

There is lots of Greek philosophical background that goes with the word Logos, its used in the work of Plato, but today I want to focus on three uses of Word in the Old Testament.  

Firstly, as in Genesis we know that God spoke and it came into being.  Here John points to the fact that the Word was the agent through which God created everything. It affirms the pre-existence and uniqueness of the Word, as not being made, of always being with God and also of the hand the word had in creating. But also here there is new hope, the dawn of new beginnings and new creation, the voice of God does not stop being the creative force in the universe. Remember this Easter we looked at John’s account of the resurrection and we saw again the echoes of Genesis… “In the garden” , “On the First Day”… This creation renewal echoes to the very end of the story a, in Revelation 21, the one seated on the throne proclaims behold I make all things new.’

The voice and Word of God speaks of God’s self-revelation. The Word, says John, is the Light of all mankind. We see the light but also by the Light we are able to see. John tells us that in the Word made flesh we see the glory of God, the father. We see the weighty reality of who God is and what he is like. It goes on to tell us why the word made flesh, now talked about as God’s Son, is able to show us what God is like …he has come from the very bosom of God. No one has seen God but the Word is able to show us what God is like because of the depth and intimacy of their relationship with one another. That would have been a special idea for John to use because in his own gospel he talks about resting his head on the bosom of Jesus at the last supper. He Can tell us of Jesus because he has been that close, Jesus can tell us of God’s truth and grace because he is that close. Sadly John’s prologue also introduces us to the fact that God came to his own and they would not receive him. They preferred the darkness to the light.

In the Jewish scriptures God speaking is also the way in which he is able to achieve his purposes and plans in history, his saving actions. Isaiah 55 tells us that just like the snow and rain does not return to the heavens without watering the earth so God’s word does not return to him without achieving all that God has purposed for it. In John’s gospel Jesus last word on the cross is ‘it is finished.’

God’s word says John brings life. In creation it is seen as the source of life for all living things. For all those who received the word made flesh John tells us he gives the right to become the sons and daughters of the God most high. Not children by natural means, not because they belonged to a certain family but because of the action of God himself.

All this may seem rather esoteric, high flying ivory tower theology. Some scholars see these verses as originally being poetry, full of metaphor and motif, word pictures that draw us deeper and deeper. Eugene Patterson in his paraphrase of the bible “the message” actually puts the prologue in poetic verse. Others see this as like a mighty ocean of theology which we have not yet totallyplumed the depth of. Can I say this morning it feels like we’ve just dipped our feet into it. But Paul Metzger says John does not allow us to simply know an egg head God an ivory tower deity, who speaks in theory and abstract and ideas. Who invites us to contemplate and know about him. It does not invite us to consider the triune God as some sort of mathematical equation  1+1+1=1. You can’t put God on a shelf in a dusty tome to gather dust.

At the heart of this passage and the heart of the Gospel is that this word put on flesh and comes looking for us. Come looking to know us and be known by us. In scripture the idea of knowing someone is personal and participatory and in the word made flesh God comes and dwells in our neighbourhood.  God comes and experiences our world, our joys our sorrows, and invites us to know him and enter his new world.  “Take note” says Metzger… “That Jesus as the word of God is by no means egg headed but soft hearted. Jesus is no mathematical puzzle but a living person longing for loving communion with his creation, making us children of God. “

How do you start the story and what does that say?

Star wars starts a Long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ and the story takes place stays in that distant place. While John starts in the beginnings, the reality is that it steps into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, and God invites us to know him and join our story to his. It steps into our universe and our times with the hope of new life. Not to a cinema near you but into our very lives.

How do you start the story and what does it say.

Citizen Kane ends where it begins with us outside the gate once again and while we know what the word rosebud means it does not help us to understand the aloof mysterious Kane. The Word made flesh leaves no doubt about God and his love for us. It does not leave us far off or outside the gate. The word made flesh, gives those who believe in him the right to be called sons and daughters of the most high God. it to finishes where it starts in eternity, with Christ in his father’s house if we receive the Word made flesh.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ripe Guava, Encourgement and Kereru... Coincidence?

There is  a Guava tree in the neighbours backyard... and the fruit is slowly fermenting on the branches.

Yesterday was a particularly weird Black Dog day. I found myself driving through Auckland traffic, which never helps, and asking God for some encouragement.

Last Night as I sat down for dinner with some of my kids I looked out the window and there for the first time ever I saw Kereru (NZ woodpigeons). We live in suburban Auckland and while there are two volcanic cones across the road from us and a big park down the road, they have never ventured into our back yard before. Yes they were there for the ripe guava, there is nothing funnier than a wood pigeon after they've been eating fermented berries and fruit. But one of the flew right into the tree and looked right in at us.  

In Leonard Sweet's book, Soulsalsa, he talks about mezuzah-ing your world. That is like with the Jews who put the Shema on their door posts so they will remember God's covenant as they go out and come in. I was in Dunedin when I read it so I started giving thanks for the presence of the Holy Spirit every time I saw a Kereru, as they are the native pigeon/dove like bird. If you've read this blog over the years You'll find that they started turning up at significant moments in my life in ways I have taken as God giving me assurance of his presence. Even to the point as I was wrestling with a decision about leaving a place of work a few years ago, one flew right into a window.

It may simply have been the Guava tree had ripe fruit but on the day I needed to again know of God's presence there they were.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Advent Blessing

Last summer  I went to the Urban Vineyard Church here in Auckland, and one of the things that really spoke to me was the way they used images from round Auckland City as the backgrounds for their PowerPoint slides. It bought home to me the reality of the Missional context of the Church.

I have been endeavouring to use such images as well in particular behind the blessings at the end of the services. With advent I couldn't help but focus on the wonderful Pohutukawa trees, that are native to this land and which blossom at Christmas time. They are considered New Zealand's Christmas tree. So here is the slide I will be using over advent.

feel free to use it if its appropriate and to share any you've done with me.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Psalm 22 My God, My God Why Have You Aandoned Me... God Has Done It...Lament, Hope, The Cross, Us and Tust In God

We are looking at what Philip Yancy calls the question that will not go away… where is God when it hurts? The question of evil... And while we would want a definite concrete answer, a formula or equation of which to make sense of it all  we’ve seen that scripture addresses that question primarily through poems and prayers of people of faith as they encounter suffering and sorrow; through Lament. And today I want to finish looking at this question by looking at Psalm 22. Because it starts by asking the question “Where is God when it hurts? ” My God My God why have you forsaken me?”   it is born out of human suffering. But also because it is a psalm of hope and trust that God will make things right, it affirms God’s ultimate salvation. He has done it! yet also because I believe this Psalm helps us to see God’s answer to the question of evil, God’s answer in the person of Jesus,  because this psalm is on the lips of Jesus on the cross, both the first line “My God My God Why Have you forsaken me?” and the last, recorded in John’s Gospel as “It is finished”. But also because it invites us to also make it our song;  It finishes  by pointing to us, future generations yet unborn. For us to join our lament to this one and to trust in God, to acknowledge that yes this is the question that will not go away but God is Good, God is sovereign and he has done it.

It is hard for Christians to read this psalm without thinking of Jesus and the cross. In fact this psalm is quoted more than any other in the New Testament, it’s quoted twenty four times. It is traditionally read on Psalm Sunday or Good Friday. But to fully understand it and its answer to the question of evil, we need to see it first in its original context. That it is a Psalm that picks up both the suffering and the faith of a person a few thousand years before Christ.

Psalm 22 is the lament of a person facing, suffering and oppression. He faces Physical suffering; He uses vivid imagery of joints torn, his strength drying up, dehydration. His pain is such that he uses the image of the worst punishment he has seen his enemies use nailing people by the feet and hands, to express how he feels.

He suffers on a psychological level. He is made to feel sub human by the taunts and scorn of his enemies, as they mock him and call out “Where is your God now?”  One of the things this psalm does is that it not only acknowledges the way in which the victims of oppression and opposition are made to feel subhuman, but that oppression and evil dehumanises those who do the oppressing, his enemies are portrayed as raging cattle out of control. Bashan was the Waikato of the ancient near east, and the cattle there were the biggest and best. Maybe today we’d use the idea of the ‘fat cats’, people who abuse wealth and power. He calls them Lions and Dogs, Dogs for the Jews were not the pets we might thing of today, but the mongrels that roamed the streets and feed off the scrapes. He says they don’t even wait for him to die before they start fighting over the cloths off his back.

He suffers spiritually as well. He finds himself in that place of disorientation, Where is the God who had saved Israel in the past?  Where now is the God who had been with him and kept him from his mother’s womb? At this time of greatest need it seems God has gone on vacation.

But this suffering does not drive him away from God, but rather he realises that despite his suffering, That God is good, that God is worthy of praise, that God has answered his lament. That because of who God is that there will be justice and righteousness in the world. The poor, the widows, orphans, strangers, destitute will be cared for. That evil will be overcome by good. This is not a song of despair but of the power of hope and trust.  It speaks in to the darkness of the light of the coming of God’s kingdom and God reign.  That is what makes it a Psalm for people of hope down through the ages.

“Where is God when it hurts?” Psalm 22 gives us an answer. That in Jesus Christ God himself stepped into the worst of our human suffering, he took it upon himself. Psalm 22 is seen as being prophetic, that it pointed to Christ’s death and resurrection. So much of the language used in this Psalm relates to Jesus experience on the cross. Jesus experienced the Physical suffering, the words used in this psalm fit totally with that most brutal of deaths, crucifixion. The loss of strength, joints being forced out of place, the nailing of hands and feet, the exertion bringing hydration, one of Jesus words on the cross, ”I Thirst” The certainty of death shown in that once on the cross the guards divided up his clothing. They drew lots for the only thing worth having his outer cloak.

Jesus experienced the depth of phycological suffering. Part of the crucifixion process was to dehumanise and humiliate the enemies of the roman state. They were put on display to show the futility of resisting the power of Rome.  Like the mantra of the Borg in the star trek universe ‘resistance is futile’ you will assimilated. . Jesus experienced the taunts and abuse, what made it worse was that it came from the very people he had come to save. He experienced injustice, political expediency, indifference.

But also that Jesus shared the depth of our spiritual suffering; he experienced the feeling of the absence of the presence of God.  Jesus who had said ‘I and the Father are one”, now cries out ‘My God, My God why have you abandoned me”.

Where is God when it hurts? The answer is the cross, that In Christ God stepped into our suffering and took it on himself.  Where is God when it hurts? I have vivid memories of a councillor coming to a course I was on and sharing the story of a young women she was counselling. The Girl was a Christian and she had been sexually abused, raped, and like we saw in Lamentations last week her cry was well where was God when this was happening to me?? The councillor said that she invited the girl to ask that question of God and as they prayed the Girl relived her experience, which of course she did as nightmares every night. This time however she looked over and there was Christ on the cross on the bed next to her. AS she looked into his face she knew He shared her pain, her shame, he took it on himself.

If the story ends at the cross, then what good is that. The reality is that Jesus not only shares the suffering of Psalm 22 he epitomizes the faith in God of Psalm 22 a faith that is willing to trust in God and his plans and purposes and his righteousness even to  the point of death. To trust in God’s salvation even if it means he has to die. To die alone.  You see for a Jewish man to quote the first line of a psalm was short hand for quoting the whole of the Psalm. It was that statement of suffering and lament and also trust in the power of God. In his death Jesus took that suffering that evil, our sin on himself and he defeated it. He took it to the grave. In his death it is defeated, sins penalty has been paid, it has been faced endured and been broken. In its place with the resurrection there is the hope of new life, new creation. Psalm 22’s vision of the righteousness of God having sway in the end becomes a reality. “It is finished”.

Yet, let’s be real, the question of evil, suffering and sorrow, oppression and brutality, have not gone away. Have they, thats why it is the question that will not go away. I read a lot of military history, I don’t know why, it just fascinates me somehow.  Often in conflicts there is a decisive battle, a victory that turns the tide, and after that the enemy is defeated, but the fighting is hardest after that, often the retreat is the bloodiest and most vicious. And we live in the tension between the already, God’s Kingdom has come, and the not yet, we await its final consummation. We live in that tension, Psalm 22 expresses that tension very well … my God, God Why have you forsaken me… and He has done it!.

One of the things Jesus did was to form a new community, a new people, who would live in the new reality of the Kingdom of God. Who would live out the goodness of God in how they treated each other and the world around them… Part of the answer to ‘where is God when it hurts?’  is that he is there, in the pain in the suffering and he invites us to go and find him and bring his light and his hope.

Where is God when it hurts? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an amazing influential book on Christian discipleship, based on the Sermon on the Mount, he found the reality of what it cost to live that out and the power of love and compassion, in a Nazi prison. God is present when a woman refuses to move on a segregated bus, a man stands on the steps of the most powerful nation the world has ever seen and dares to voice an alternative dream, to call them back to their Christian understanding of humanity. He’s there in the story behind graffiti on our walls where a young police officer stops to pray for a woman with mental illness and invites her to church.  He is there when a meal and a prayer are given to a family facing the death of a loved one. He is there in a Dutch lady who had lost family in concentration camps fulfils a vision of caring for the very people who persecuted her, now homeless and destitute themselves . He is there when people can dream and see a better future “ and work to make poverty history”. He is there in small groups of people going into prisons with love and compassion. He is there in a hand that helps someone in trouble in the street. He is there, the berlin wall comes down and the oppressive structures in the east admit they were ready for violence and uprising but hey were not ready for prayers and candles. He is there is prayers offered for healing and wholeness. In sharing the hope we have found. People trafficking and slave labour have been bought to our attention again this week, and God is there when people are willing to dedicate their lives to freeing women from such abuse and giving them a new start. He is there when a man steps in to stop a brutal assault on women he does not even, even when it costs him his life. The kingdom of God breaks into our world. The light of Christ shines in the darkness.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

How Deserted lies the cIty, A Hope of REturn... A Little Look At Lamentations.

I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew this week. I hope not, but I fear I may have. I want to look at the whole of the book of lamentations. Not necessarily in details so don’t worry we’re not going to be here all day. But rather because I think the way this book is woven together helps us as we wrestle with the question of evil and suffering, it helps us deal with the question “where is God when it hurts?”  Lamentations is helpful because it does not try and tie it all together and give us a solution, beautifully packaged with all the “I” dotted and the “T” crossed.  It does not provide a definitive answer. It actually honours the fact that like Philip Yancy says this is the question that will not go away.  It honours the fact that just maybe our well thought out theological arguments defending God’s Goodness and sovereignty shake and quake and fall short, and can even seem obscene, when we are confronted with the ongoing reality of suffering.

Lamentations is a series of five acrostic poems; that’s poems based on the Jewish alphabet, gathered together into one. It’s as if this very structure is an expression of the limits of our language, of the struggle language has to express and make sense of tragedy and suffering.   These poems are laments and funeral dirges expressing the sorrow and pain at the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. Old Testament scholar Miriam Bier and I remember Miriam as a teenager who attended St John’s in Rotorua, calls the book Polyphonic. That it hold together different voices, some offering a defence for what has happened and ultimately of God’s actions and others that because of their suffering see no justification for the tragedy that has befallen them, and can see no defence for both God’s sovereignty and goodness. These voices are involved in a dialogue and you can see as you read through the book how they modify as they listen to each other. It’s not often that the voice of those that suffer is given that power.  But ultimately we are left without one position holding sway. It’s left open. That’s really summed up in the last two verses which was part of our reading this morning: A plea for God to restore Jerusalem, tempered by the possibility that God just may have abandoned his people all together, full stop.

Such a dialogue is helpful for us.

It’s helpful that it gives voice to how we deal with sorrow and tragedy and faith.

One of the ways that Lamentations has been seen is that it is very much written to express the grief process.  A process where we can swing from despair to hope, anger to resignation, denial to acceptance,  darkness to the dawn of new possibilities, swing from wanting answers to the big questions and knowing that none of the answers are that satisfying. Feeling God’s presence and feeling abandoned. I had another visit from my Pilipino friend this week that perhaps summed this up well. She is an amazing woman who cares deeply for others and has a vibrant faith.  She was telling me of the good things that God had done, and at the same time would stop and remember what had transpired this week in her home country with the super typhoon. The hands that had been praising God would move heavenward in supplication, why God did you let this happen? Why are my people suffering?  It’s helpful and healthy to have this process we work through in scripture. Not with any ‘there, there’ everything’s going to be alright, but left simply as a seemingly unanswered cry to God.  It gives it voice, validity, and value. Lamentations was believed to be read out to mark the anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem, and we know today that it is read out and prayed weekly at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, what remains of the temple, giving voice to the grief at the loss of the temple and hope that God may someday restore his people.

Another way that Lamentations has been described is as a storm. These different voices wrestling with suffering, struggling to make some sense of it, despair and hope swirling round and round, and in the middle of it is a calm point the eye of the storm, the passage we read out from lamentations 3 where a person who is talking of their experience of suffering and also of God, comes to a point of stillness, this I remember and hope, that the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases his mercy never comes to an end. This quite trust and waiting founded on what we know of God’s character revealed to us, is where many laments finish. Remember from the other week it’s what Brueggemann calls a position of reorientation, it what gives people hope.  But here and in real life it is the eye of the storm and it does not stop lamentations or us from having to wrestles with and experience   the questions the consequences, emotions and anguish. It is a refuge where we can find strength to continue in the face of the storm. One of the things that sometimes happens when I pray for people is that we experience this amazing sense of God’s presence and peace. Boom, it’s like God actually turns up in a palpable, no doubting who’s here kind of way.  It may not stop the problem, or provide the instant answer that we just hope for, it’s not the cure all, it doesn’t even let God off the hook, but it lets us know that God is there with us, and that allows hope to seep into the situation. Maybe beyond the storm there is order and sunshine and calm.

Lamentations also helps us in that it opens up dialogue between our theology and suffering. Some of the voices that have been identified in this book are the lamenter, who speaks in the third person and who voices some of the prevailing wisdom of their day. The other voice that is heard is Zion, herself, who protests that there is no justification for the suffering that she is enduring.  One of the big questions for God’s people in light of the exile, is why did God allow it? One of the threads that people have identified in the Old Testament is what is called the Deuteronomic history. That is that Israel’s history is presented in terms of her keeping and not keeping her covenant relationship with God. In the book of Kings, for example, there is the epitaph of each king that they did wrong in the sight of the LORD, even with those who were seem to be reformers and call Israel back to fidelity with God there is usually an epitaph that they did not totally do away with idolatry. God had warned Israel again and again, God had been patient, and that God was right to punish first the northern kingdom and the Judah, for breaking their covenant relationship. This is some of the background to Lamentations; the lamenter hints that this is why Jerusalem has fallen. Its part of the answer to the question of evil that we live in a broken and fallen world. We even see this with the typhoon Haiyan  as being seen as a result of the effect of humans on the planets climate.  But this does not stand up when confronted with the voice of Zion herself. The one who is suffering.

Can I say before I go on that this is rather hard stuff to talk about, because Lamentations deals with imagery of rape. That is how Zion is represented a women who has been abused and raped and thrown out for all to see. The argument that the lamenter seems to point to, is that ’The bitch had it coming’. Jerusalem had been promiscuous; flirting with other God’s, now had reaped what had been sown. Zion’s response is well yes they had done wrong but she didn’t deserve what happened to her. No women deserves that… it adds to her victimization to even say it. To the lamenters credit he agrees with her and his theology no longer fits. In fact she looks beyond her own suffering and says that even worse… it is the children that suffer, the lamenter has to agree with her that this is indefendable. Later, She points to the fact that she has been let down by her leaders and prophets who did not warn her enough, or who falsely said everything was alright. The question why have the Babylonians not been brought to justice for what they did is raised as an accusations and hope. It is what makes evil so…evil… and unjust… that the innocent and weak suffer the most for what others have done.

In New Zealand over the last few weeks we’ve had to confront many of the same questions  with the vile ‘roast busters’ episode. A group of sexual predators who gang raped drunk under-aged girls, and then boasted about it on social media.  Yes what were these children doing out drinking, but, they are the victims. They did nothing to deserve this. What we are wrestling with now is that they have been let down by society, that should be there to protect them. There is a cry that in speaking up the rape victim is victimized again.  There is a cry for justice, can I say as a man my gut reaction is its nothing that two bricks wouldn’t fix. But I know that’s not the case there is also the cry that goes beyond that to ask how our society could see boys grow up to think such behaviour was alright.

Lamentations also helps us grapple with holding our faith and our protest together. The problem of evil, suffering can turn people against God; it can be a stumbling block to faith. In the Ancient Near East, if me and my army come and destroy your city then it is a sign that my god is greater. But the writers of lamentations cannot do that, it just maybe the ultimate despair, what makes their suffering and struggle harder is that maintain the sovereignty of God, you reign forever, they hope in a just God, remember us Lord restore us to yourself. To wrestle with this question of evil, to doubt and to even shout at heaven, or even in the face of suffering to wonder if it is empty is not wrong, we stand with God’s people who have wrestled with that. But also to still trust and hope in God means we also stand with people of faith down through the years.  There is an amazing play called ‘God on Trial’ made into a TV movie by the BBC, set in Auschwitz, where Jews awaiting death in the gas chamber put God on trial for breaking his covenant with them. I wonder if there isn’t this kind of thing happening in lamentations. I don’t want to spoil it for you, if you haven’t seen the play, it’s on YouTube, but it ends in the gas chamber, where after having found God guilty of breaking his covenant, the men die praying. It finishes in the gas chamber, as group of Jews had come to Auschwitz, to remember and as they leave, one of them asks if God answered the prayers of the dying men, to which an older man, the narrator, says ‘We are still here’. The story does not finish at the end of lamentations. In the fire and stench of death in Jerusalem, the history of God’s people goes on; the remnant comes back to Jerusalem.

Finally in lamentations there is one voice that is missing. It’s God’s voice. The voice we long to hear. Yes our theology tries to make sense of this and we can see God’s answer in this case in the fact that he did not abandon his people. But it’s the question that will not go away, that gets asked again and again, where is God when it hurts? Being a minister of the gospel I want to say that God’s answer is found in Jesus Christ. In Jesus who entered into our world our darkness our suffering, whose birth is accompanied by the echoes of women crying for their dead children. That it is answered in the cross. AS we are going to look at next week in Jesus identifying with us in our pain and suffering, taking it and our sin upon himself, quoting psalm 22 “my God, my God why have you forsaken me’. That it is answered in Paul’s affirmation in Romans 8 that amidst a list of brutality and suffering that nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus. That new creation has broken into a fallen world that the Kingdom of God has dawned for those who live in darkness. Having said all that I find myself having to sit with these poets of long ago and people of faith down through the ages and put my trust in what I know of God, and lament ‘How Long!’  ‘How Long!’ Maybe part of the gift of lamentations is that it gives permission for that polyphonic voice we find ourselves with in the face of suffering and evil. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

A prayer based on Psalm 5 1-3 (As a call to worship), the hymn 'Holy Holy Holy' and Walter Brueggermann's understanding or Psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation

This prayer is has come out of several things...
...looking at laments in the Hebrew Scriptures
... Walter Brueggemann's wonderful categorizing of the psalms as Psalms of orientation (when it feels the way its supposed to be) Disorientation (To use Bono's words 'when hope and history don't rhyme) and re-orientation (when we find a deeper understanding of  and trust in God), which has been of great help to me.
... choosing Psalm 5:1-3 as a call to worship (if its helpful here  are the slides I used for it

...followed by that wonderful hymn and treasure of our tradition 'Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God almighty'.

I've tried to capture all this by saying in all circumstances we say Holy, Holy, Holy LORD God almighty. We acknowledge your sovereignty and your goodness.

Hopefully I've also picked up something of the fact that people coming to worship find them selves in many different places and give voice to those places. feel free to use any of this that you feel would e helpful.

Lord God to you this morning we lift our prayers and give thanks.
In all circumstances we say Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty
We thank you when life feels right and proper
When dawn has come and the sun shines
We thank you for the beauty of your creation,
For your provision for all our needs
We thank you for your grace and love in Jesus Christ
For sins forgiven
For the wholeness you are weaving into our lives
For leading and guiding us by your spirit and your word
For holding our times in your hands
For working your purposes for good
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty.
We thank you when it feels all chaotic and churned up
When it’s as if night has won
We thank you for your reality,
Even when we cannot see you
We thank you for your constant presence,
Even when it feels beyond our grasp
We thank you that our prayers reach your ear
Even when it feels as if they simply echo off the ceiling
We thank you for your goodness even in the face of suffering
Our hallelujah’s  will still ring in this night
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty
We thank you as we find a new sense of trust and hope
We thank you that you are here with us
We thank you that you are sovereign
That you hold sway over all our turmoil
We thank you for stepping into our world
In Christ you shared all our suffering and pain
We thank you in Christ there is the hope of a new day
New creation, restoration, abundant life
We thank you for storms calmed, prayers answered
We say ‘your grace is sufficient for us’
Holy, Holy Holy, Lord God almighty
We come today and confess our sin
We have done wrong
We have left the good you call us to do, undone,
Forgive us Lord
We give you thanks for fresh starts and clean slates
We ask that you might renew us by your Spirit
Fill us afresh to praise your name
Enable us to live for you
Empower us to witness to the hope we have in Christ
That you may be glorified, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Holy, Holy Holy, Lord God almighty
Lord God to you this morning we lift our prayers and give thanks.
In all circumstances we say Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God almighty


Sunday, November 10, 2013

Feeling Like Refuse And Finding Refuge: Psalm 31 and Trusting in God in the Face of Suffering...

“Where is God when it hurts?” is what Philip Yancy calls the question that will not go away.  It’s a theological question… In the face of evil, how can God be both all-powerful and good? It’s a justice question, ’Why do bad things happen to good people?’, it’s a faith question and it’s a life question, as we confront suffering and sorrow, tragedy and trauma. AS I said last week we could address it at an intellectual level, maybe reduce it to a series of bullet points on a PowerPoint slide, but It does not honour how all of who we are can get caught up with this question, and neither does it do justice to how Scripture deals with it. Scripture handles it in poem and prayer, in lament, in crying out to God. Over this month of November we are going to look at some of these laments and hopefully as we explore these treasures that have given voice to both suffering and hope, we will know more fully “where is God when it hurts?”

Today we are going to look at Psalm 31. And I love this psalm because it expresses the reality of the human condition and the life of people of faith; It captures both the Psalmists emotional reaction to suffering, and his assertion of trust in God. When you read it, it feels like a roller coaster. It oscillates between acknowledging God’s goodness and sovereignty, which speaks to that Theological Question we have, but also vividly expresses the depths of human suffering and sorrow. I feel like refuse, like broken pottery no good for anything simply thrown on the rubbish heap, and I find refuge in you O God… But I will trust in the Lord, In to your hands do I commit my spirit, my times are in your hand.  I don’t know about you, but that’s often how I find myself reacting when confronted with pain or sorrow.

The Psalm’s heading says it’s a psalm of David, we don’t know when it relates to in his life.. The suffering that the psalmist is going through seems to be physical, and emotional and in regards to his relationship with the people round him.  In verse 9-13 he pours out his suffering to God. It has the feeling of physical illness, or even the aging process, eyes weakening, joint pain, failing strength. It is exacerbated by the way people react. His enemies have seen this as a sign of God disfavour, and so he is gossiped about and shunned.  In the Ancient Near East, the prevailing wisdom was that if you did something wrong or sinned against God that God would punish you.  That’s what people are saying about the psalmist. The whole book of Job, is a polemic against that way of thinking. It is actually one of those questions we ask ourselves isn’t it that like with the psalmist saps our strength… “What did I do to deserve this?’”  For David it also has political ramifications, just like today, when someone in power, has done something wrong the knives come out, in David’s case they were often real knives, that is part of the psalmist’s distress.

It is easy for us to get caught up in some of the same thinking of the people in David’s day.  Our western society is built round the pursuit of Wealth, Health and Happiness. We are often influenced to think that this is the norm. This is what we should expect all the time, that we have missed the fall  and gone hang gliding instead. There is also a popular stream of theology that backs this up, what’s called prosperity Gospel.  That God wants to give us those things, and if we don’t have them well maybe our faith isn’t strong enough, maybe we are not doing what God wants… Like giving enough.. Strangely that one comes up all the time.  It easy for us to forget that just like we had read from John’s gospel today, that Jesus said  in life there will be trouble … but find peace in the fact that I have overcome the world’. In fact in the world today the majority of Christians live in poverty and the majority are in danger of persecution. It is so I found out on Friday, an international day of prayer today for Christians being persecuted for their faith. We live in what some Jewish scholars are calling the worst genocide since the holocaust, Christians dying in the Middle East and Africa and elsewhere because of their faith. 

n his book about wrestling with unanswered prayer and serious illness, ‘God on Mute” Pete Grieg includes an appendix called “heroes of the faith and unanswered prayer” which lists quotes from biblical and historical heroes of the faith as they have wrestled with suffering and the seeming silence of heaven. Missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, on hearing about the massacre of 58 of his missionaries and 21 children… ‘I cannot read; I cannot think; I cannot even pray; but I can trust”  St john of the Cross “the Dark Night of the Soul… in this time of dryness, spiritual people undergo great trials… they believe that spiritual blessings are a thing of the past and that God has abandoned them”. Mother Theresa “ I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God, and that God does not exist.” CS Lewis reflecting on when his wife had died… “what chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers Joy and I offered and all the false hopes we had…  step by step we were led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when he seemed most gracious he was really preparing the next torture.”  Despite this they are still people of faith and trust in God.

What suffering and sorrow and pain and loss can do is that they can consume our lives. I wonder if the Psalmists description of his suffering isn’t also a record of what it is doing to his Spiritual life as well. It can weaken out eye sight, it can become the focus of our lives, it can mean that we cannot see beyond it. It can sap our strength. The psalmist uses the metaphor of running from a hunter, avoiding this trap and that trap and longing for a place just to rest and catch his breath. We can be on the move all the time and not be able to find the source of life giving water we need that we looked at last week.  I read a couple of books recently about the SAS during the Second World War, they talked of being chased while operating behind enemy lines and how it drove these most resilient and tough men to the point of exhaustion and beyond. That’s what sorrow and suffering can do.   In the end we are creatures of time, we find it hard to look beyond what is happening in the here and now. That’s what suffering and pain can do. It can capture us in a dark place a dark time under siege and feeling abandoned by God.

What makes this psalm hope filled is that the psalmist brackets his pouring out of woe by extending his vision, from the here and now, from the dark valley of his suffering, and that is what gives him hope. He looks back, he remembers how God had answered prayer and been a refuge in the past:  His own past and in the past of his people. David’s trust in God when facing Goliath was based on God helping him face the wolf and lion, not from the absence of Trouble, but God’s help in trouble.

In verse 6-8 he says that unlike the worthless idols that people worship round him, he is aware that God sees, that God hears, that God cares and that God can act. One commentator said that for Israel to remember was to have faith and believe. It’s why the psalms are full of poems and prayers remembering what God has done for Israel in the past. God bringing them out of Egypt, God’s doing that as a result of God’s promise to their ancestors, Gods leading through the wilderness, God remembering them while they were in exile and bringing them home (psalm 107). In fact I couldn’t read these verses  without thinking of the burning bush.’ I have heard the cries of my people, I have seen their affliction… I will deliver them… by the way I’m sending you Moses.”

It provides hope and trust in God because we start to see the longer picture.  Right in the middle of his list of woes and worries, there is a change. The psalmist joins his story his times and suffering with what has gone before with what he knows of God and says  “BUT I” two small words  but a big change. But I will trust in the Lord I say “you are in My God” My time is in your hand.” There is an acknowledgment of that just like in the past God had answered prayer and bought the psalmist and his people through, that God can be trusted to do it again.

One of the answers that people give to the question of evil, is time, it’s there again and again in the scriptures, that the eternal God will make all things right, will bring justice in his time. It does not always help us because we are temporal beings, creatures of time. But the psalmist finds  his refuge in God’s sovereignty, that yes despite the fact that things are not good now and may not be in the long term that God is in control of eternity and because of what they have experienced of God in the past that God is Good, so can be trusted with the future as well.  We don’t know whether everything came up roses for the psalmist. But we do know that they found a hope and the truth about God that was able to give them the refuge they needed even when they felt like refuse.  We can just want the rubbish to go away, but this lament perhaps gives us something better, something of more value that God can be trusted in the long haul.

One of the things that make this psalm so memorable is that Jesus quotes it on the cross. In fact in Luke’s gospel it’s his last audible words… ‘into you hands do I commend my spirit”… Jesus displays the kind of trust that the Psalmist is talking about. A faith and a trust in God that despite the fact the it seems like death has won, that he will trust in the sovereignty of God and he will trust in the goodness of God.  Ultimately that is where we look to give us the hope we need to persevere as well. We look back to the cross of Christ and we see that in that most horrific of situations, that miscarriage of justice, that seeming ignominious defeat, that God can be trusted to work out his purposes for his people.  That death bought us life that death made it possible for us to have our sins forgiven. That death and resurrection was a sign of God seeing, God knowing and God acting. That death and resurrection is the hint of dawn, the promise of a new world coming that puts our suffering into that eternal perspective. That even raises the possibility of healing and wholeness. In a couple of weeks we are going to look at Psalm 22 and the fact that ultimate answer of the question of where is God when it hurts? Is that God is with us, God went before us, and will come and get us, the answer is that God’s son  went to the cross.

I want to finish by quoting Gerald Wilson… “like Jesus , we cannot assume that committing our spirit into the hand of the God of truth will result in deliverance from suffering and death indeed, to commit ones spirit in this way is to give up control or expectation over the outcome of our life and to trust in the redemptive love of God, come what may. It is this giving up that makes in possible in the final analysis to enter the refuge of God. “

Be strong and take hart all you who hope in the Lord