Friday, September 23, 2011

The Protector

All he had ever expected or desired was to lead an ordinary life. After all, what could be more ordinary, more mundane, than the life of a village carpenter in a distant province of the empire? Steady work, a loving, virtuous wife, in due course God’s precious gift of children, and, underlying all of this, the security of knowing what God required – wasn’t that all that any sane man would anticipate?

He couldn’t remember exactly when he had begun to notice her, but over time he became aware of her, and started to court her. He was a good prospect, her parents approved, and they became betrothed. He thought she was the most special girl in the world, she had a beauty of tranquillity that touched some deep place within him, and for her sake he wanted to be the most caring, tender and responsible husband he could possibly be. But he had no idea how uniquely special she was going to prove to be, or what would be required of him.

It started the day she told him that she was with child. While he gaped at her, unable to take it in (she was the last girl he would have expected of any unchastity, five minutes ago he would have been prepared to swear that she was the purest woman in Nazareth) she proceeded to tell him a story about God, a visiting angel, and becoming the mother of the Messiah. She told her story with the calm conviction of someone who was simply report6ing what had happened, but her voice faltered and grew silent when she saw that he did not believe her.

He was resolved to treat her as gently as possible, and divorce her without public scandal, but that night the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and declared to him that every word she had said was true. She was, indeed, to be the mother of the Promised One, and he was to be – what? – her husband, her support, her protector through these vulnerable years. He was to be (and his mind reeled at the prospect) the earthly protector for the infant Son of God. How did a totally ordinary man end up in such a role? How could he ever be adequate?

For a while he thought that, despite the strangeness of the situation, things might resolve themselves into a semblance of normality, at least for the next few years. But nothing went according to his plans. Caesar (or God?) had other ideas. There was the census-required trip to Bethlehem with a pregnant wife, and the birth itself, in an outbuilding, with no women to attend her in her time of need, but strangers, shepherds and angels, celebrating the deity, and amazing mission, of this quite ordinary-looking baby.

There was a time of normality then, at least a little breathing-space, and Mary and the baby were, to the inhabitants of Bethlehem, just another mother and child. But it didn’t last. The strange kings came, with their heavy accents and unsettling gifts, and then he had the dream. He was to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt, there was no other way to escape Herod’s insane jealousy.

So here he was, in the middle of the night, swiftly packing their meagre belongings, and thankful that at least he knew which direction Egypt lay in. And as Mary, accepting his explanation, lifted the child and wrapped him tight against the night air, his heart swelled. He was uncertain, he was afraid, but he understood the job that God had given him to do. He would protect and guard this woman and this wondrous child until the day when he could bring them back to the safety of Nazareth.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Impossible

What am I to do with a God like you?
All day I beat myself
Against the rock of your improbable truth
Battered to despair;
Then you touch me
(It doesn’t matter: sunbeam, butterfly,
The soft new leaves of Spring)
And I am broken once again
By the tenderness that comes and carries me.

Both law and gospel
Scour me out precisely with the curette’s blade
Till I am nothing
A hollow thing
And then, oh wild wind of the Spirit,
Sun, moon and stars,
Music defying gravity,
Love, yourself, bursting through creation,
Entering my emptiness
Overturning death,
Scattering my altars till my heart laughs with you.

There is no walking with you
I must learn to dance,

Where angels fear to tread.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Return

This was what the angels would have been waiting for, if they had been certain what to expect. He had come back to his throne, and he would reign forever and ever.

It had been 33 years they had been waiting, plus those nine months before that which their minds could scarcely compass. That the Lord of all creation should confine himself to the limitations of a human being was enough to beggar their understanding, but at least, despite the confines of that finite flesh, to be human was to be made in the image of God. But that he should be so much less again, an insentient egg taking root in a woman’s womb, how were they to understand that? They marvelled and they worshipped afresh at the greatness of a God who could make himself so small.

There was no part of being human that he had exempted himself from. The ordinary childhood, the refugee experience, the learning to work by his “father’s” side, supporting his widowed mother until his brothers were ready to take over the responsibility. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, frustration, the daily burdens of the children of Adam: he had born them all and done so without sin. And then he had gone forth to do the Father’s will on a larger stage. He had spoken the very truth of God into the ears that would hear, declaring judgement on the bondage of the empty traditions of men, and mercy and forgiveness so enormous that the souls of the self-righteous were offended. And, just as he spoke the words of the kingdom, so he did the deeds of the kingdom, making the blind to see, the deaf to hear and the lame to walk. He spoke in authority to the storms without, and the wind and the waves obeyed him; he spoke authoritatively to the storms within, and demons relinquished their claims on the hapless and helpless. He had even raised the dead.

And then ... well, if angels could cry, they would have cried at the horror of it: the betrayal, the traitor’s kiss, the malicious mockery of a trial. Who did these creatures think they were to stand in judgement on their Creator? And then, the utterly unbearable – the beating, the mocking, the humiliation and the crucifixion; and the angels could not bear to watch as the Beloved himself became the sin-bearer, alone, forsaken and tormented on that dark and dreadful hill.

But now he had returned, triumphant, and sin and death and hell were captive in his train. That did not surprise the angels, they knew who he was and had never doubted his transcendent power. But there were two things that did amaze them, two things that were now changed forever within heaven itself. The first was that he still bore the scars of his torment, and those wounds were too bright to look upon, for from them the love that was before all worlds poured itself out upon the loveless, and this was the greatest beauty they had ever seen.

And the second thing was also a great mystery, for though he returned in the full glory of his godhead, he also returned in his humanity, carrying the race of Adam in himself to the very throne. The beloved son was also the firstborn of the new creation, going ahead of his brothers and sisters to prepare a place for them, and to intercede for them as their great high priest. And the angels bowed their heads and marvelled.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Reluctant One

I came, I saw, I did nothing -- and that is my greatest shame. Somewhere, deep inside, I think I knew the truth a long, long time before that crucial day when I finally admitted it, but the fact is that I didn’t want to know, didn’t want to have my comfortable world disordered and disrupted. And I especially dreaded the condemnation of my fellow Jewish leaders. I had far too much to lose. In short, I was afraid. But if I didn’t know the truth, then how can I explain my preoccupation – no, make that total fascination – with that man?

Oh yes I came – again and again and again I came, to stand on the verge of the crowd and watch and listen. At first I came with my fellow-members of the Sanhedrin – that was part of our legitimate business, to check out a new teacher, but then I couldn’t stay away. I was careful, either I would quietly be there with a group of other Jewish leaders, or I would hide myself in the midst of a large crowd, on the same principle as hiding a leaf in a forest. Dressed in un-ostentatious clothing, I would not be noticed or recognised among so many. But I think Jesus knew, a couple of times he looked straight at me, almost as if he had deliberately sought for me, and I felt as if his searching eyes could see every secret conflict of my soul.

And conflict it surely was. His teaching made so much sense – he talked about God comforting the mourners and giving victory to the meek, and looking below the surface to see whether our hearts, not just our visible actions, were guilty of lust and murder and unbelief. He spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and it was like a fresh breeze blowing through my soul, overturning all the musty formalism of my world – a kingdom of righteousness and justice, growing as inexorably as the leaven works its way through the dough. And when he spoke of God, the loving father who welcomes the wanderer home, who sends out an invitation, right across the universe, to let go of our religious foolishness, and come back to Himself, I could feel that same invitation tugging at my heart.

And that is not even to mention what I saw – the sick healed, the hungry miraculously fed, the blind and the deaf made whole. I even saw the dead raised to life again. What right has any man to doubt after seeing so much?

But I was afraid. I had lived my life secure and comfortable, a member of the Jewish religious elite with a secure place in the system and the approval and acceptance of my fellows. And I knew how vicious they were to those who did not conform. I was not ready to take the risk, and my heart was torn. Even when I overheard fragments that suggested they were plotting to kill him, I still held my peace, though my heart was sick within me. I was immobilised, in thought and action by my dread, as if some terrible sickness had bound up my mind and heart.

It was only when I saw him hanging there, dying on that terrible cross, that I was released, only to find myself in a different kind of sickness – an absolute horror at my own cowardice, and the way in which it had all played out. Then, in the midst of my despair, I heard him cry out “Father, forgive them ..” and when I looked up, from the distance where I stood, I imagined (for no one could see clearly in such darkness) that he was looking straight at me, with a pity that understood me and loved me even in my brokenness. I was glad of the darkness then, for no one could see my tears.

When it was all over, I asked Pilate’s permission to take his body for burial. With reverent sorrow I laid his body in the tomb I had bought for myself. He did not need it for very long.

Saturday, September 03, 2011


We left everything for his sake. I remember the day so well. It wasn’t the first time we had met him – that was when, hungry to learn more of God, we had been down at the Jordan, where John was baptising. Jesus appeared, John greeted him, strangely, as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, and then, after a moment’s disagreement, John led him into the water and baptised him. It was hard to see and hear exactly what happened next, but it looked like a dove came down and hovered over him, and there was a sound, which we now know was a voice from heaven, but at the time we were simply confused. Then he walked away, and we rubbed our eyes and wondered what it was we had just seen.

We didn’t see him again for quite a while. We had our nets to return to and fish to catch – and he had just vanished from the scene. Later we learned that he had fasted in the desert for forty days, but at the time we had other things to think about – like our families and where our next meal was coming from – all the normal concerns of everyday life. And yet .. we couldn’t forget him either, even though we couldn’t articulate why. But we had seen something that day by the Jordan that had touched our souls forever.

And then, one morning, he was there –walking by the shores of Galilee as comfortably as if he knew every pebble of the strand. We were casting our nets, at the time, it was just another working day after all, and then we looked up and saw him. We glanced at each other, and there was no need to say, “It’s him,” we could read in one another’s eyes the hidden longing to encounter him again.

And we looked back towards him and he was coming straight towards us, with that look in his eyes that has taken us 3 years to understand, as if the deepest sorrow of earth and the most transcendent joy of heaven were all contained in him at once, in a single moment, without contradiction or conflict. And, yes, he was heading straight for us! And he looked at us directly, man to man, eye to eye, and said, “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men!” It sounds crazy even to say it, but it was as if we had been waiting for that invitation all our lives. We didn’t stop to consider it, we didn’t stop to weigh the pros and cons, we simply left our nets and followed him. It was absolute action, taken without measure or reserve.

Of course, the testing times came later – weariness and rejection, the enmity of some and the misunderstanding of others, but by then we never doubted our choice, for we had learned to love him. What did any of the things we had put aside matter compared to that? Even on the day when the thronging crowds turned away from the challenge of his truth, and he asked us if we would also leave him, Peter was speaking for us all when he replied, “Where would we go? You are the only one who has the words of eternal life!”

And that said everything that ever could be said. Yes, we turned aside from so much else when we chose to walk with him, but it rarely mattered. You can’t have it all, there are always choices to be made. And when are privileged to meet the one who is Life itself, everything else seems a small price to pay for the privilege of knowing him.

Thursday, September 01, 2011


I shall not walk away,
Though the waves break over me,
And I go down into silence,
I shall not walk away.

I shall not walk away,
Though the words grow bitter,
And the air is torn with cruelty,
I shall not walk away.

I shall not walk away,
Though the needs are wrapped up,
And the whitewash clogs my breathing,
I shall not walk away.

I shall not walk away
Though the paths are darkened,
And I grope, confused, to reach you,
I shall not walk away.

I shall not walk away,
Though the heart grows heavy,
And the feet too tired for dancing,
I shall not walk away.

I shall not walk away,
Till the true dawn brightens,
And a nail-scarred hand receive us,
I shall not walk away.