Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lazarus and the dark deeds of powerful people.

Let me tell you the story of a Head of State:
He was the deputy to his brother – and many believed that he plotted his brother’s downfall. While he bided his time he married his friend’s wife, and had an affair with his brother’s daughter.
Then the moment came for him to push his brother aside and take over as head of state. As Head of State, he became more and more autocratic. He refused to answer to parliament, and moved the decision-making process to his office. He valued loyalty to himself above all else, and dismissed any members of his cabinet who did not obey him.  He also set out to punish those people of truth and integrity who opposed his decisions.
….. anyone know this man’s name?
I refer to the Roman Emperor Domitian – who ruled Rome from 81-96AD.
He is particularly remembered for his persecution of Christians – because they opposed his self-serving government.

It was in this period that John wrote his gospel. This was a time when the empire seemed to be engulfed in darkness. And John wanted to tell the good news: that Jesus comes as a light in the darkness.
And so John tells a story about Jesus bringing light into a dark tomb: The story of Jesus and Lazarus is a story about Jesus who comes to breathe fresh air into dark tombs:
And I suspect that we need to hear this today –
Because our news this week has been filled with political actions that took place under the cover of darkness – deeds that smell of decay and death!
Jesus comes to us today and says “Do not let your fear rule you!”
When the Christian Community hears Jesus, we come out of our tomb and we are not afraid – because Jesus comes to breathe fresh air into the places of death.

Therefore when a head of state uses his office for deeds of darkness, the early Christians said “No – in Jesus name there will be light”.  So too today: we as followers of Jesus oppose powerful people when they want to bring darkness; we shall say “No - in the Name of Jesus there will be light”.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


2Corinthians 5:16  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The story is told of Christmas Eve 1914 when 100 000 British and German troops were involved in an unofficial truce along the length of the Western Front.    

Captain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported how a sing-song which "ended up with 'Auld lang syne' which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked ![1]

The annual celebration of the birth of Jesus becomes a moment when the love of God breaks into our grubby, selfish lives. Heaven touched earth, and God’s love was found in a simple cattle trough “reconciling the world to himself”. Christmas becomes a moment to glimpse the love of God in the simple act of soldiers singing together instead of shooting each other.

The sadness of Christmas Eve 1914 is that this was only a temporary respite: the war dragged on for another four years before people found a way of stopping the fighting. My prayer is that this Christmas may be more than a temporary respite from our foolish self-interested lives.  Once again Christmas Eve holds out hope for love, kindness - and even for reconciliation. We have the opportunity for a new beginning:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Christmas challenges us to show generous kindness in giving gifts, laughing together, and reaching out to one another.... for the next 365 days!

[1]  Regan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992)  Guinness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0  p140-142.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Seeing a great light

Isaiah 9:1  But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined. 3  You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4  For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5  For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

In 580BC Nebuchadnezzar II imposed his rule on the children of Israel by conquest. Their leaders were taken off to Babylon, while the peasants stayed behind to produce crops for their new rulers. The poor worked the land to make Babylon wealthy – and prayed for God to rescue them from their corrupt rulers.
The Prophet Isaiah responds by assuring the children of Israel that God has not forgotten them. He says that the day will come when a ruler will emerge to lift the burden of the oppressed and bring those in darkness into the light... and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom” ..

The above passage has various interpretations: Jewish belief holds that this refers to past events, specifically the birth and reign of King Hezekiah. [1]  Christian interpretation holds that this passage points to the coming of Jesus, who will bring peace, justice and righteousness. The difficulty with these interpretations lies with agency: the essential question is whether we wait for God to “drop in” and rescue us – or whether we hear the call of God to become his partners in bringing light to a dark world.  

This Christmas challenges us afresh: are we willing to be part of the plan of God to bring light to our world, or will we exist in the darkness? Put differently – will we continue to complain about corrupt, self-serving leaders and immoral and faithless individuals, or will we become part of establishing the kingdom values of as taught by Jesus.

The choice is yours.
Fourth Sunday in Advent
4.  God is with us
The Scripture passage for the day is drawn from Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and other Servants, (Nashville, The Upper Room 1983), 32.
This reflection is from my own devotional exercises for the day.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

“I will rescue them”

Ezekiel 34:11  For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12  As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13  I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14  I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15  I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. 16  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Ezekiel was a Jewish prophet who was carried off into exile by the Babylonians and settled in Tel Abib , probably not far from the city of Nippur. He addressed the recurring question of the Jewish people: did Yahweh’s authority extend beyond the borders of Palestine and over the official Babylonian god Marduk?  

‘Indeed so’ says Ezekiel. Yahweh will gather the scattered sheep “from all the places to which they have been scattered”.  Their God is like a protective shepherd who will seek out those who were lost or injured by their exile and bring them back to their home pasture.

This was a difficult thing to say - because there was nothing on which to base these words. Many were losing their faith in Yahweh: some lost their faith as they struggled with desperate poverty in their ancestral homeland, while others lost their faith as they discovered prosperity and security in their exilic environment.[1] But Ezekiel chose to express his faith in a God who overarched the nations. And in this he has become an example to successive generations of people of faith, as we claim the presence of God – even when circumstances tempt us to lose hope.   

This then is the joy of Christmas: no matter how tough the difficulties we face this Christmas, the Good Shepherd will seek the lost... bring back the strayed... bind up the injured, and  strengthen the weak (Isaiah 34:16).    

For Thought
Shepherd of my soul, I give you full control
Wherever you may lead, I will follow
I have made a choice to listen to your voice
wherever you may lead I will go

Be it in a quite pasture or by a gentle stream
The shepherd of my soul is by my side
Should I face a mighty mountain or a valley dark and deep
Shepherd of my soul will be my guide

Fourth Sunday in Advent
4.  God is with us
The Scripture passage for the day is drawn from Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and other Servants, (Nashville, The Upper Room 1983), 32.
This reflection is from my own devotional exercises for the day.

[1] In fact the displaced people flourished so much that many refused to return to their homeland when given the opportunity.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Comfort my People

Isaiah 40:1  Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. 3  A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5  Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." 6  A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8  The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9  Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10  See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11  He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
..............Isa 40:28  Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29  He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31  but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

I am always deeply moved by the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The key passage that unlocks this music is the opening text from Isaiah 40: “Comfort ye, my people”. This is a word from God to the children of Israel that their time of exile is over and the prophet was to announce their restoration.

This is a word that has become greater than a particular period in history. This becomes a word for every generation – a word calls every Jesus-follower to bring comfort to people by telling them that the “glory of the Lord shall be revealed”. This revelation takes place through the quality of lives of Christian people. We are to bring the Christ-light of joy, peace and justice into a dark world..... and so comfort those who live in fear and darkness.  

Let us use this Christmas to remind people of the restoring / comforting work of God. It is this – and only this – that drives the celebrations of this season.

For Thought
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

Messiah, HWV 56 (Handel, George Frideric)

Fourth Sunday in Advent
4.  God is with us
The Scripture passage for the day is drawn from Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and other Servants, (Nashville, The Upper Room 1983), 32.
This reflection is from my own devotional exercises for the day.     

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Day of Reconciliation

Matthew 1:18  Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23  "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25  but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Today is a national holiday in South Africa. This public holiday is rooted in two different (and separated) sections of our community:
·         For white Afrikaners December 16 was the day set aside to celebrate an 1838 victory in battle against the Zulu leader Dingane kaSenzangakhona Zulu. Afrikaner leaders were convinced that God had given this victory in exchange for aVoortrekker vow to keep this day sacred as a holy day.
·         This day marked the 1961 founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress. As white South Africans celebrated an ancient victory over black people, this became a day that many black South Africans renewed their commitment to overthrow white minority rule. 

This becomes a difficult day for the new South Africa: two such different meanings make this an emotionally divisive day. Those who proposed the new list of national holidays chose this as “The Day of Reconciliation” – but we continue to be a nation divided by race, privilege and history. A New Constitution, or a majority governing party, or tough minded determination cannot force people to be reconciled to one another.

I am convinced that the Christmas story offer us the only real hope of reconciliation. Christmas begins as a story of betrayal and shame... and ends with reconciliation. A righteous young man is betrayed by his fiancé, who is pregnant and he knows it isn‘t his child. He is shamed as a man and as a faithful Jew. Yet he sets aside his personal beliefs and chooses the tougher route – the route of reconciliation. This is not romantic, and is extremely deliberate. And this is only possible because God is in it:  as Matthew points out – “Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."    

This then becomes the hope for my South African nation – and for every nation in need of reconciliation; this is the hope of divided families, and of individuals who are divided one against another: Emmanuel

When God is with us we are enabled to embrace the gritty task of reconciliation.  The challenge of Christmas is for us to be reconciled to one another. Reconciliation is the real meaning of this season.

For Thought
He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Saviour holy.
Words: Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), 1848

Fourth Sunday in Advent
4.  God is with us
The Scripture passage for the day is drawn from Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and other Servants, (Nashville, The Upper Room 1983), 32.
This reflection is from my own devotional exercises for the day.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Immanuel עִמָּנוּאֵל "God is with us"

Isaiah 7:10  Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11  Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12  But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. 13  Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17  The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah--the king of Assyria."

Ahaz was King of Judah in the mid-8th century BC. He found himself in the precarious position of being forced by the neighbouring Israel to join a coalition against Assyria,  - something he desperately wanted to avoid. In the above passage, the prophet Isaiah brings a word that Ahaz does not need the coalition to be secure, because God will protect them. He is then given a sign to ‘prove’ this prophesy: a young woman would give birth to a child, who will be called “God with us” (Immanuel). The threat from the enemy kings would be ended before this child grew up.  

Nearly eight hundred years later, Matthew draws on this history to address the fear and insecurity experienced by the followers of Jesus (Ch 1:23). Some in Israel had relied on a political arrangement with Rome to keep the peace; others had thought to build an underground movement of zealots to overthrow Rome. Most were just afraid... a fear expressed in a terrified diaspora when Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Roman army. Matthew tells his readers not to be afraid: because the birth of another child will become the sign of God’s presence – Immanuel.  

This becomes the recurring theme for those of us who follow Jesus:  Christmas is the reminder that no matter how desperate our circumstances, we do not have to twist and turn in the wind, relying on our wits or our scheming. To be safe - we do not need to trust in our military power or our personal weapons; we do not require our financial investments or educational qualifications; we do not need our powerful families and political connections. Instead God steps out of eternity into our lives and walks alongside of us.  As with Ahaz and Isaiah, and with the generation who read the Gospel of Matthew, we too can know that God is with us – Immanuel. This Christmas – choose to trust that God has your life.

For Thought
Emmanuel, God with us
Emmanuel, God with us
The son of Israel

And still he calls through the night
Beyond the days of old
A voice of peace to the weary ones
Who struggle with the human soul
All of us, travelers, through a given time
Who can know what tomorrow holds
But over the horizon surely you and I will find

Emmanuel, God with us
Emmanuel, God with us
The son of Israel

Second Sunday in Advent
4.  God is with us
The Scripture passage for the day is drawn from Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and other Servants, (Nashville, The Upper Room 1983), 32.
This reflection is from my own devotional exercises for the day.