An Advent Reflection: History is not about the Politics of Power

The angel Gabriel’s promise to the virgin Mary in Luke 1 is not the first time in the Bible that a frightened or incredulous woman hears such unlikely words. There is a thread of similar divine announcements throughout the story God’s covenant relationship with Israel.

They begin at the very beginning of that story. Old age pensioners, Sarah and Abraham, are told they will have a son. Sarah’s reaction is laughter at such impossible nonsense. Yet conceive and give birth she does and she calls her son Isaac (laughter). God’s covenant promise of blessing to Abraham that he will be a father of many nations comes into life with the birth of that baby boy (Gen 17:5).

In Exodus, another baby plays a redeeming role in Israel’s history. While not a miraculous conception, the story of Moses, a child of slaves, being rescued from death is a tale of God keeping his promise of blessing to Israel through a helpless and crying baby (Ex. 2:1-10). That little child would become the deliverer of the people of God from the might of Egyptian empire.

During the period of the Judges, a barren, unnamed woman only known as the wife of Manoah, is told by an angel of God,

‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son.’

The Spirit of God would be upon him and he would help deliver Israel from the Philistines. His name was Samson (Judges 13:1-25).

Later comes the story of Hannah, who is heartbroken with grief at her inability to have children by her husband who loves her. She pours out her heart in prayer at the temple and her request is granted by God. She names her son Samuel (heard of God). And so the age of prophets in Israel begins (1 Sam. 1:1-20).

During the darkest period of Israel’s history – exile in Babylon – it is the prophet Isaiah who speaks words of hope. Israel may now be like a barren woman enclosed within the confines of a small tent, but one day that desolation will be transformed. The tent will be enlarged for a growing family. There will be prosperity and life bursting forth in all directions. God’s promise to Abraham is not forgotten.

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of  the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the  Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.  (Isaiah 54:1-3)

Centuries later, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the Temple speaking words about his wife, Elizabeth conceiving and giving birth to a son who will be called John. Despite being too old, what he says happens. Elizabeth speaks to herself, ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said (Luke 1:5-23). John’s exalted task is to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’.

And so, finally, we come to the consummation of that first promise to Abraham. The angel Gabriel appears to a young virgin girl called Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin. She is told

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

This baby is the child of promise, the deliverer of Israel, her long-hoped for Messiah.

She sees more clearly than anyone else, the significance of the angel’s words. She understands that she stands in line with Sarah, Moses’s mother, the wife of Manoah, Hannah, Isaiah’s prophecies and Elizabeth.

But more than this, she perceives that she is most highly favoured of all these women (Luke 1:28). The Lord is with her. Her son will be Israel’s saviour and king (Luke 1:31-33), the Son of God (1:35). The power of God’s Spirit will make all this possible, ‘For no word from God will ever fail’ (Luke 1:37)

Mary’s great act of faith is to believe the angel’s words

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38)

In her song of thanksgiving (the Magnificat of 1:46-55), Mary locates her own experience within the story God’s promise of blessing to Israel. Her rejoicing flows from wonder that she has been chosen by God to play the pivotal role.

‘My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour (46-47)

His being ‘mindful of the humble state of his servant’ (1:48) reveals God’s mercy.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones  (50-52a)

God is all powerful. But Mary’s point is not so much political as it is one of worship. The paradox is that God’s limitless power takes the form of gracious kindness to the powerless (Israel, Mary, all the powerless women listed above)

And this choosing of the humble includes Israel herself.

‘He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’ (54-55)

As with the story of Moses, even mighty Empires cannot resist the covenant-keeping promises of God.

Things will be no different with the birth of Mary’s boy. His mother is supremely confident that, whatever opposition from proud and arrogant rulers who seem to hold all the power, God’s promise of blessing to the nations will not be thwarted.

Mary’s story tells us that history revolves around the fulfilled promise of a miraculous birth. It is a story of promise and hope.

So as we celebrate this Christmas, Mary’s Magnificat reminds us that our faith is embedded within the story of Israel. The birth of the Messiah is God’s answered promise to Abraham embodied in the fragile form of a baby boy.

It also tells us that history is not about power politics. In a news-cycle dominated daily by Brexit and Trump, it is easy to become obsessed with the latest political drama and, subconsciously, to believe that this is where ultimate meaning lies.

And in doing so we begin to lose hope and trust. Not just because Brexit is a shambles and Trump is, shall we say, erratic and unpredictable. But because all political promises fail, all Empires fall.

Yes, faith is worked out within the context of Empire (just read Luke 1-2), but that Empire is irrelevant and powerless in the face of God’s promise.

Ben Myers, whose words have stirred this reflection, says this,

‘Pregnancy and childbirth are the means by which God’s promise makes its way through the crooked course of history’ (p. 53) …

‘The meaning of history is not power and empire, but promise and trust. The secret of history is revealed when a woman, insignificant to the eyes of the world, responds in joy to God’s promise and bears that promise into the world in her own body’ (p. 54, The Apostle’s Creed).

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A year in the life of a stem cell transplant patient – and friend

Tim Page is a close, and certainly my oldest, friend – we have known each other since we were 4 years old!

It has been humbling to see him, and his beloved wife Ruth and two sons, journey through the last year of recurrence of blood cancer and the ‘nuclear’ last-chance-option of a donor stem cell transplant in St James’ Hospital in Dublin. As Tim says, recipients have a one-in-four chance of survival 18 months post transplant.

Tim has written up reflections from the last year. There have been a few times that he nearly didn’t make it this far. Just like Tim in conversation, they are honest, real, thoughtful, generous and suffused with hope.  I commend them to you for a read.

Perhaps your 2018 has been a great year – then perhaps these reflections will sharpen your sense of thankfulness for blessings – particularly health and the freedoms and possibilities it offers.

Or, perhaps your 2018 has been a dark one with much grief and sadness. Perhaps these reflections will speak into that experience as words of a person who knows psychological and physical pain and yet who has hope in God that death does not have the last word.

I have clipped the start below … for the rest of the article click here

This weekend, 15 December 2018, was a new birthday for me.  I am one year old following last year’s donor stem cell transplant. This radical and risky process has upgraded my blood from B Rh+ve to A Rh+ve and was my only chance for ongoing life. In a pre-transplant St James’s hospital consultation, it was made clear that my chances of survival to 18 months post-transplant were one-in-four.

In my five run-ins with blood cancer over 34 years, certain dates are irrepressibly hard-wired into my thinking, especially the first diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on 24 September 1984.

Having relapsed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in April 2017, my prayer to God in May 2017 was concise:

“Please help me get to transplant and through transplant”

Getting to transplant required a ‘Complete Response’ to the toughest chemo of my life in Belfast City Hospital leading to clear PET scan.  That was achieved after some uncertainties. This good news meant that Professor Vandenberghe at St James’s Dublin could accept me onto the Transplant Programme. She was explicit about the rigours of the transplant process, referring to it as “Tiger Territory”, due to multiple risks …

 

 

‘The love of money is a root of every kind of evil’ or ‘money is spiritual kryptonite’: some thoughts on contentment and dissatisfaction this Christmas

This verse from 1 Timothy 6:10 is probably one of the misquoted texts in the New Testament.  The popular shortened version – ‘money is the root of all evil’ – makes two errors:

i. It wrongly identifies money itself as the problem when it is human attitudes to money that is in view – love of the green stuff.

ii. It also wrongly lumps all causes of evil to money. While it is very likely that the vast majority of evil is linked to love of money, the text says ‘a root of every kind of evil’ – not the root of evil per se.

Now, having said this, these clarifications in no way lessens the force of what is being said in this verse. Money is spiritual kryptonite – it’s highly dangerous stuff. To be treated with extreme caution.

I started listing evils associated with the love of money. It started to get pretty long pretty quickly.

Here’s an invitation – what evils do you see today that are the direct consequence of love of money?

Here’s the immediate context in 1 Timothy 6:6-10:

6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

The dangers of the love of money are unpacked in 9-10. Look out for key words around the human heart – what drives us:

‘want’

‘temptation’

‘foolish and harmful desires’

‘love of money’ (philarguria – a rare word in the NT with the sense of craving or greed for more)

‘eager’

Those desires are powerful but utterly destructive. ‘Plunge’ has the sense of drowning, being overwhelming and sinking without hope into ruin and destruction.

Those motivated by love of money have wandered into apostasy, abandoning the faith. Now lost, it is as if they have impaled themselves and are in agony. It is graphic imagery.

money trapThey have fallen for the oldest temptation of all – greed for more. Their dissatisfaction meant that they were lured into a trap. The bait was money. By taking the bait they are imprisoned in harmful and foolish desires.

Has this convinced you yet that money is a dangerous substance? Perhaps our Euro notes should have a skull and crossbones on them.

Yet I suspect that there is little Christian teaching on the toxic dangers of love of money – especially in a culture of turbo-charged consumerism where ‘greed is good’ and ‘more’ is never enough.

Gordon Fee comments, if this is the case

‘Why would any one want to be rich?’

The desire for more is foolish because money is a transitory and powerless thing. It could not bring us life nor is it any value in death (7). To pursue it and love it is to chase after something that cannot deliver.

By falling to its temptation we are like rats in a trap – we follow its allure and can’t escape.

What then is the only ‘protection’ or inoculation against the toxic poison that is love of money?

Two words:

Godliness (eusebia) : love for God. In him is our source of identity. Hope. Purpose. We do not need to pursue false gods of money and its illusionary promises.

Contentment: Satisfaction with ‘enough’. Simplicity of lifestyle (8). Rest. Gratitude. Contentment is the most radically counter-cultural attitude possible in a consumer society.

It is quite literally ‘heresy’ in a culture of ‘never enough’.

This combination of godliness and contentment constitutes real riches. Note the irony and the polemic – this is the only place where ‘great gain’ is to be found.

Do we really believe this?

What do you think?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

Parkrun theology?

Parkrun has become a global movement. After starting in 2004 in London there are now something like 3 million runners in over 20 countries. The concept is brilliantly simple – join others at 9.30 on a Saturday morning in running 5k around an open public space. It’s a timed run, it’s free and volunteer led.

Here’s a map of parkruns in Ireland (from the Irish Parkrun website)

Parkruns ireland

I am a Parkrun novice but get to my local venue when I can. My aim is modest – try not to die and keep moving until it’s finished. The ethos is non-competitive and friendly. There are young children running with parents, dogs on leashes, and even mums running while pushing a buggy complete with baby (good for the humility to be passed out by such a pair – I should know!).

Why talk about Parkrun on a theology blog? Well, as I was ‘running’ around the course this morning it struck me that there are parallels to baptism and the community of the church.

Better explain how before you think I have lost the plot.

A Radical Levelling

At a Parkrun everyone comes as they are. The ‘uniform’ is some sort of running gear. Participants are stripped down to bare essentials. It is just each person facing the same physical challenge. The only ‘resource’ each one has is their body.

Pretty well all the trappings of the modern world are left behind (apart from those running with headphones on). Practically all markers of status, wealth, achievement and distinction become irrelevant. There is a certain vulnerability in having those ‘protective’ layers removed. Whoever you are ‘in the world’, here you are just another runner. For each person, it is just ‘the course and me’. But – and this is the genius of Parkrun – ‘me’ is able to join with others in a community of runners sharing the same task together.

In the early Church, there was a different type of ‘levelling’ experience linked to community – that of baptism. Ben Myers describes it in his wonderful little book on the Apostle’s Creed (from a 3rd Century document called the Apostolic Tradition).

When the rooster crows at dawn, they are led out to a pool of flowing water. They remove their clothes. The women let down their hair and remove their jewelry. They renounce Satan and are anointed from head to foot with oil. They are led naked into the water. Then they are asked a question: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”. They reply, “I believe!” And they are plunged down in the water and raised up again.

Two further questions are asked – about their belief in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in the Holy Spirit. Each time they are immersed after their affirmative reply. Then

When they emerge from the water they are again anointed with oil. They are clothed, blessed, and led into the assembly of believers, where for the first time they will share in the eucharistic meal. Finally they  are sent out into the world to do good works and to grow in faith.

Now, I’m not advocating that modern baptisms (or Parkruns for that matter) should be done naked! But the symbolism is powerful. Believers bring absolutely nothing of their own status and achievements to baptism. They come utterly dependent on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

And this radical levelling is permanent. From now on there are to be NO distinctions in status and treatment of believers based on their status and wealth. James is the most outspoken but it is a consistent theme in the NT.

Wealth and status are irrelevant before God – indeed they are most likely to be severe hindrances to the Christian life. Take this warning in 1 Timothy 6: 6-10 that I’m studying at the moment.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

And this is where (the admittedly loose) parallel to a Parkrun begins to break down. For at the end of the run the hundreds of runners return to the car park (yes, some irony about driving to a run) and get into their cars.

Immediately the world’s obsession with status and achievement comes rushing back – for few things in modern Ireland proclaim those values than our licence plates numbered by year of production attached to famous brand names – whether Mercedes, Audi, BMW or whatever.

Comments, as ever, welcome.