Saturday, April 23, 2011

The First Day

John needed time to clear his head, to take in the enormity of it. Too much had happened too quickly – in the space of a mere 3 days he had moved from deadly, grinding despair to dizzying wonder, and he felt overwhelmed. What did it all mean? It was the first day of the week, but now it was also the first day of something else. Something had changed forever, and now, while the markets bustled and the soldiers marched, it was a different world .. a (he fumbled for the concept) .. new creation. Yes, that was it, a new creation – the first day of a new creation!

Since he was a small child he had known the creation story, and how, on that first day of all, the Lord had spoken, “Let there be light!” and light had shone into the darkness, and wherever light shone, the darkness retreated, for the darkness could not overcome it. Light was stronger. And now, in the darkest place of all, the tomb, the sealed off place behind the stone, light had broken forth. Death was no more the unbreachable darkness, for Jesus Himself had gone down into death, into the terror and the horror, and had overcome them with His life. Death had been broken. Life had broken forth, and that life was the light of men.

He remembered how he had heard Jesus speak of Himself as the Light of the World; at the time it had seemed poetic and attractive, now he saw it was nothing less than the literal truth. There was a hideous, skulking darkness in the heart of each human being, and its tentacles reached out and sucked the life from everything that human beings tried to do and build together. It was a darkness so great that many were unable to recognise the light of Light when he stood in their presence; he had come unto his own people, the children of Abraham, and instead of loving the light they had turned their backs on it, on him, and done whatever it took to make that horrid light go away, even to the point of crucifying him.

John wept. Even in the wonder of this golden morning, that wound was still too raw. So short a while before they had leaned close together, and shared from the same dish as they recounted the ancient story of deliverance: how only the blood of a slain lamb, painted on the doorposts, had stood between the firstborn of Israel and death. And then .. his body .. so horribly broken .. the rage.. the cruelty .. the spitefulness .. the petty meannesses of their injured pride .. all had been poured forth on him, had broken over him like a mighty wave of destruction, a storm that had pulled him down to the depths of Hades. The darkness had not understood Him, and where it did not understand, it hated. And they had strung up his body on that hateful cross, as if to prove that they had finally utterly beaten him. And, through blinding tears, John had watched him die, and all their hope die with him.

And yet .. Jesus Himself had said that if he were lifted up he would draw all men unto himself. At the time it had meant nothing – what could it mean? – but now the sense of it was starting to form a pattern in his mind. The Passover lamb, dying in the people’s place, the creator beginning a new creation, and calling them to come and join him, skipping over the darkened hills of their distress towards a dawn that was breaking over history. If death could be overcome, what else was possible? The same Word which had spoken the world into being on that very first day had walked among them for a season, the Father’s own glory walking in their midst; and then, in their place, had walked, deliberately, into death itself, that there he might speak that word by which death should be destroyed.

And this was just the first day.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Bride

They waited many years for her to be born, and when she finally came into being, she was born from a scene of blood and horror. Not that there was any other way she could have come – not with that promise, not in this universe. She was born in the darkness, in the middle of the day, when the terrible spear did its piercing, tearing work, and the blood and the waters of her birthing poured forth, and the world was shaken. She came from the very flesh of the one who would one day be her husband – but is that really so surprising? Wasn’t it also true of the very first bride of all?

For fifty days she was hidden from the world, a newborn creature, learning how to walk in the gentle darkness, washed clean by the death of death and prepared for her great baptism. Then the day came, the great festal day, and her Lord had gathered together people from all the surrounding nations to be the witnesses of her coming forth. And he prepared her to face the world with the fire of his presence and the great wind of his coming. She was borne forth by the power of the first whisper of the promise of his love, and that power released in her the ability to speak, and so she went forth, and stood among the very people she had hidden from before, and spoke of her beloved in tones of wonder. There were some among those who had travelled from the east and the west who were amazed, and moved, and changed by her words, and from that day she started to grow.

But she was still weak and small, and seemed defenceless, and there were those who, being of the same mind as Pharaoh and Herod before them, thought it would be easy to destroy her while she was young and helpless. And some hated her because they were jealous, and thought that she had come to steal the Bridegroom’s love from them; and others hated her because they had first hated her Bridegroom, and they would not acknowledge that they had already done their uttermost to destroy him, and failed completely. And so they harried her, and persecuted her, and in her own strength she would have died. But the more they hurt her, the more closely and desperately she clung to her Beloved, and the more she was transfigured by his love, and those who had eyes to see trembled at her beauty, and she grew, and was strengthened, even as her enemies sought to cut her down. And the Great Dragon gnashed his teeth, and abided for his moments of attack.

And in the great lust of his malice he conceived another plan, and as the years passed, and she hungered for her Bridegroom’s coming, fretting because she had not learned the patience of eternity, there came another kind of enemy, armed with terrible cunning, for this one did not seek to murder the bride but to seduce her, and turn her heart away from her Beloved, who was the very reason she existed in the first place. And sometimes they almost succeeded, but then her Beloved would pull her back to him again, and she would still survive.

She still waits. The years have been long and weary, and the mud of the world sticks to her. She is tattered and ragged, there is blood on her hands, and often foolishness in her heart. And the world glances at her with contempt or indifference, and walks on by. Only some see the beauty of her Beloved shining through her exhausted eyes. Yet she waits for him, for he has promised that he will return, and his promises never fail. He has gone now to get her home ready for her, and when all is complete he will come back to fetch her. Their wedding will be the consummation of all history, and their great wedding banquet will be the beginning of the marriage she has longed for, and her Beloved has bled for.

And on that day, face to face with her Beloved, she will be transformed. The garish robes and smutty bandages of this world will fall away to nothing, and she will stand there radiant, pure, perfect and complete. She will wear the white robes of his perfect righteousness, and her face will reflect back to him his perfect love. Her tears will be wiped away, and she will be beautiful beyond description. And her bridegroom will say to her, “Enter into the joy of your Lord,” and she will do so, and never go forth again. And her glory will never fail.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Battlefield

The centurion felt confused. Wasn’t he, an experienced soldier, a valued officer in the mighty army of Rome, an expert on battlefields? Wasn’t that his profession? Yet now he wasn’t so sure.

He remembered the big staged battles against the Gauls: the tightly regimented Roman formations, with every spear and sword sharpened and ready, and every man in his assigned position, trained to know exactly what to do when the moment came. The cavalry were off to one side, and a fine showing they made of it, their banners fluttering in the morning breeze, their horses, controlled and still. He had often thought how afraid he would be if he were on the other side, seeing the silent, relentless might of Rome arrayed against him, waiting in perfect discipline for the order to advance. But then, he had always found that time of waiting before the battle to be the most nerve-racking part. Once they were engaged, weapon to weapon, with the howling, screaming hordes of the enemy, there was no time to think, only react with every trained muscle moving by instinct. And that was what a battlefield was like. It was noisy: deafeningly, overwhelmingly noisy, with uncouth battle cries, the clash of weapons, the pounding of hoofs, the screams of injured men and horses. And the smell of battle: hot metal andall sorts of unpleasant human odours, but, overriding everything, the smell of blood – salt-sweet, metallic and utterly sickening. A man needed a strong stomach as well as a strong arm to survive in battle. And the sights of battle? Well, sometimes as a commander you got to step back and see the big picture, but mostly it was a kaleidoscope of close-ups – the sword thrust you parried back instinctively, the screaming face that was almost in yours, the body you sidestepped carefully so as not to slip in the gore and ooze. Yes, that was what a battlefield was like.

But now he was not so sure. Could an even greater battle possibly be fought in near silence, with just the marks of dried blood down a single, ordinary body to track the subjugation of the victim?

The men on the other two crosses gave him no concerns. He had supervised many crucifixions; it was an unpleasant but necessary part of the job. And these two were typical victims, the one who yelled out his anger and hate, cursing and swearing at the world that had brought him to this; the other one moaning and trembling and seeking only release. But the one in the middle? He was different. He was calm and still, in the middle of his suffering, and yet when he did speak, he spoke with incredible authority, and .. he struggled for the right word ... compassion? awareness? kingliness? In the end he decided that the right word was love. And that frightened him. Why were they crucifying someone who loved?

The man had had a hard time of it too. They had beaten him, and not lightly either. He had seen hardened soldiers die from a beating like that. And that crown of thorns they had pushed down on his head? Yes, it was a little thing compared to the larger tortures, but a cruelty just the same. And yet, somehow he wore it with more dignity than many the centurion had seen bedecked with crowns of gold. And then there wasthat placard above his head proclaiming him king of the Jews. It was supposed to mock him, show him up as ludicrous and totally defeated, but that wasn’t the effect at all.

Then the darkness fell, absolute and terrifying. Something was terribly wrong, and he had a growing conviction that it was all to do with this man hanging here from the vicious nails. But a Roman soldier does not desert his post. So he stood there and he watched (as best one could in the dark) and he wondered. And he recalled snatches he had learned about the mystery religions of the Greeks who said that sacrificial death led to life, and the things that the Persians said about the battle between darkness and light. Could one man alone, nailed and dying, constitute a battlefield?

He remembered a conversation he had once had with a Jewish teacher. He had tried to convince the obstinate old man that their mysterious God must be weak and powerless since he had let them be conquered by Rome. The man had looked at him with disconcerting amusement. “Do you really believe that Rome’s victories make her greater than God?” he had asked. Then he had quoted something from their wisdom literature, “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong ..”

Somehow he found himself believing that a cosmic battle was being played out right before him: light against darkness, good against evil, life against death. The man cried out one final time, “It is finished!” And even as he spoke there was an earthquake, and the soldiers fell to the ground.

The centurion rose slowly to his feet. Somehow fighting Gauls and Germans seemed like the sport of little children, compared to the battle this man had fought, and won, on his own. He shook his head to clear it. There was much he needed to learn, much that was difficult for him to understand. But of one thing he had no doubt. “Truly,” he said, “this man was the son of God.”

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Still Waters

I was born into an unhappy flock. Oh, my mother was tender to me when she could be, but she had little energy to spare, for the pasture was sparse and the ground was stony, and other stronger sheep jostled and shoved for the best pasture and the sweetest grass. Being merely a young lamb, the least of them, weak and undernourished, I was often pushed aside and ignored.

It was a hard life. The strong rams, determined to snatch the best grass for themselves, would often trample destructively all over the more fragile pasture as they fought each other for the choicest sections. That meant there was even less left for the rest of us. And likewise they would charge straight into any safe water they could find (sheep will only drink from still water). By the time they had finished bullying their way in, they had churned it all up and the rest of us had nothing to drink until the waters settled again – and that could take hours while we waited in the heat of the day.

And the shepherds? They were no help to us at all. They took what they wanted from the flock, fleecing us for their own profit, but they took no care of us in return. They should have led us to rich pastures, where there was more than enough for everyone, and plentiful water for us all, but it was too much trouble. They would rather flirt with the girls, and practice their music, and rest in the shade of the trees. It is only now, when I know how a good shepherd cares for his flock, that I realise how very bad it was.

They took no care of the weak or the sick, and there was anarchy in the sheepfold. Sometimes sheep wandered off on their own, hungry for better pasture, tired of being pushed around and abused. The shepherds never even cared enough to notice they were gone, let alone go to the trouble of seeking them and bringing them back. We never saw those sheep again, and what became of them I have no idea.

One day a wolf crept up on the flock, and helped itself to a half-grown lamb. The sheep scattered in terror, panicked by the smell of blood and bleating with alarm. Eventually the commotion disturbed even the shepherds, who had been lolling under a tree eating figs and laughing at each others’ jokes. For a moment they remained stupefied, then one of them yelled, “It’s a wolf!”, and, instead of rushing in to save the sheep, they lifted their robes and bolted. We were utterly alone in a fierce and desolate world. The wolf, having eaten his fill, slunk off, and we huddled in uncertain little groups. It was a cold and dreadful night.

For several days we wandered, gradually drifting apart from one another, and one morning I woke to find myself alone. I was terrified. Surely others of my flock must be nearby, over the next hill, or the next? I started running, frantically bleating, and then ... I slipped. I could have been broken on the rocks below, but I landed on a ledge just a little way down, shaken and bruised, but still alive. And there I lay, for a day and a night, too frightened to move, and whimpering softly. Then, just as the grey dawn started to blush, there were footsteps, and a kind voice, and strong arms reaching down to lift me. The True Shepherd had come. He bound up my wounds and carried me home on his shoulders.

It is all so different now, for this flock is led by Love. This shepherd loves his sheep so much that he would even die for them. He gave me a name (I never had a name before), and that name is who I truly am. Whenever he calls me by that name, I will follow him. Sometimes the paths are hard and steep, but he will always help me when I am ready to falter. And then he brings his flock to a spacious place, where there is rich pasture for us all. We rest there, where there is no pushing or destroying, for there is abundance, and we are at peace. And at the rising and the setting of the sun he brings us to the still waters, the pools of his plenty, and our deepest thirst is satisfied. With this shepherd I fear no evil, for his love holds me and protects me all the days of my life. I am his forever.