Saturday, October 22, 2011

Except a Seed ..

Only now did she begin to understand. All his words which had made no sense before now began to make shape and meaning, a shape that was both terror and glory. She had never really understood before how intimately the wonder and the horror, the good news and the bad, were interconnected, at least on this earth. But now, having lived through the crucifixion, the knife-twisting moment of the empty tomb, and the moment, almost too much for human flesh, when he had called her by name and she had come face to face with Resurrection; she began to understand, with her heart before her head, what this salvation he had talked about actually looked like.

It did not begin with keeping the law. No wonder the law keepers, the self-appointed righteous of the nation, had hated him so much. Long before his disciples had any real grasp of what he was talking about, their defensive fear had recognised the threat he posed to them. They were not the centrepiece of God’s kingdom, and never could be, for the one who stood in their midst showed up all their carefully orchestrated piety for the shallow window-dressing it really was. He himself was the centrepiece just by being who he was. But even then, it would not have mattered at all if they could have let go of their pride and listened and believed. Nicodemus had managed it, so had Joseph of Arimathea. But Caiaphas and his ilk could no more go there than a camel could fly (or pass through the eye of a needle, perhaps?). In order to say ‘yes’ to the Master, they would have to say no to themselves, and that was the one thing which they would not, could not, do. And that, right there, was the heart and nub of the issue.

The Master himself had said it, “Except a seed fall into the ground and die, it abides alone.” There was no holding on, any attempt to cling to this shadow of life, this shadow of having and being, was nothing less than a death grip which would strangle your own soul. Hold onto the stuff of this world, the things, material and immaterial, from which we build our little gestures of would-be security, and one would have no hands left to take the hand which God Himself was holding out. One must let go, be willing to fall down into the darkness of abandoned hope, face the bad news of utter loss, but do so in faith because there was a glorious dawn to follow the darkest night.

The Master had said it so clearly, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” At the time the words had just added to her painful confusion, now that he himself had walked through death to life again, he had made a way for whoever would follow him to take up their own cross until He became their whole life. There would be grief, there would be suffering, for the children of God are not immune to the pain of this broken world, but there would never again be a pain which he did not inhabit, a tomb to dark for his life to meet you there and bring you through to resurrection.

“Do not cling to me,” He had said; and now she understood why. To cling to him was to cling to the earthly human comfort, the warmth of a friendship like no other. To cease to cling was to receive, instead, the Son of God, the Resurrection and the Life, the Eternal Lover who would never let her go. Her hands might be empty, but his hands would never be, and he would hold her fast forever. This was the Good News and the Joy that waited for her on the other side of all this death that she must pass through. The night had ended, and the morning had come, and the very leaves on the trees whispered “Alleluia!’

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Pursuit

It had been a long, hot day. The Shepherd was tired, the sheep were tired. Now, just as the lowering sun became a giant orange ball hovering above the western hills, they had returned to the sheepfold. Some of the other shepherds had already returned, and, having stowed their sheep safely for the night, and were sitting on the ground, relaxing, bringing out food and drink. The sheep, both in and out of the fold, were making comfortable noises, knowing that darkness and rest were very close.

As he always did, the Shepherd stood in front of his flock and counted them as they went in. He knew every one of his one hundred sheep by name, and the order they normally walked in, so, while he counted, he spoke a word of reassurance and comfort to each one. Every sheep would rest in the fold that night secure in the comfort of the Shepherd’s love. But what was this? ... 97 ...98 ...99 ...? There was a sheep missing! The Shepherd knew exactly who it was: Needgrace, a sheep of poor wool, straggly appearance and, for a sheep, cranky temperament. If any of the Shepherd’s flock were going to wander off on their own, this would be the one. All the shepherds knew Needgrace, and most of them saw him as unattractive and worthless. When the Shepherd said he would go and seek his sheep and bring him back to safety, they laughed at the very idea. “Why would you bother with him?” was their consensus.

But there was one factor they had overlooked – the Shepherd loved his sheep, even one as apparently useless and difficult as Needgrace. He would leave his 99 safe sheep and go forth into the night to find the one that was lost. The others tried to dissuade him. There was lightning flickering on the hills, and a dusty breath in the air that was the first sign of the storm’s rising wind. But the Shepherd would not be dissuaded, he would pursue that one, foolish sheep, whatever it took, until he had found it and carried it home to safety.

The night grew dark and wild. The Shepherd was already painfully weary, but how could he leave his sheep in this? There were wolves in the hills and thunder close at hand; under the fierce roiling of the clouds there was no light of moon or stars, only fitful jags of lightning to confuse the sight. But the Shepherd kept on, his ears constantly alert for the faintest bleat. The rain came in short, sharp torrents, punctuating the icy wind. But the Shepherd kept on. The stones were sharp under his sandals, and he had to prod with his staff to be sure he wasn’t stepping off the edge of the cliff in the dark, but the Shepherd kept on. His heart was overflowing with tears and prayers for his lost, foolish sheep. If he didn’t keep on, he might never find it in time.

Finally, after weary, bitter hours, he heard the faintest sound through the clamour of the storm. It was the voice of Needgrace so faint with misery that only the ears of love could hear it. With deliberate speed the Shepherd pursued that voice across the slippery rocks, calling out reassurance as he came. By the time he reached his needy sheep, the Shepherd was badly bruised and bleeding, but his torn hands reached down and untangled the trapped creature, and with a mighty effort he pulled it free. And just as he hoisted it onto his shoulders, the clouds parted and a watery dawn showed through. The pursuit was over, the sheep had been rescued from his own folly, and as the Shepherd took a direct path back to the sheepfold, he called out in gladness, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep!”

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Stumbling Block

It was all his brother’s fault. Abel, Abel, it was always Abel. First to do whatever their parents asked, first to try new things or bring home new gifts, and now the first in God’s favour. It wasn’t fair! He was the firstborn, he should be the one to come first in everything – the eldest son of the human race. It was only fair that he should have the pre-eminence. But Abel was always there before him, with his quick smile and his kind words. Through many seasons Cain had watched the eyes of his family light up at the sight of his brother in a way that they never did for himself. Once or twice he had stepped forward and said, “I should be doing that!” Abel had simply stepped back with a slightly bewildered smile and let him have his way. Somehow it hadn’t felt much like a victory.

And now Abel had offered a better sacrifice. Of course Cain had offered what he had, from the fruit of his crops, but once again Abel had waltzed in ahead of him, choosing the very best he had, and Cain’s offering had not been acceptable. It was all Abel’s fault, he was the stumbling block to Cain’s success. Even God did not understand, warning him that sin was lying in wait for him. Couldn’t God see that it was Abel who was in the wrong, stealing the love and favour that belonged to his brother? The only possible solution was to get rid of him.

It was all too easy. An invitation to go out into the field, a surprise attack (Abel was always so trusting) and hiding his body away, and it was all done. There was a strange, stomach-lurching moment when he looked down on his brother’s damaged body, as dead as any brute beast, and realised that this was the first time a human being had ever died. But it was done, the stumbling block was removed, and he could be first in everybody’s love.

It surprised him when God Himself questioned him, but he had his prepared answer: “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?” That should have been the end of it, shouldn’t it?

But it wasn’t, and his stomach twisted as he heard the Lord’s reply. Rather than being moved to the front of the line, the favourite of God and man, he had become accursed. The ground he had tilled, the fruitful earth into which his brother’s blood had soaked, would now reject him and no longer yield its bounty to him. Rather than being received into the central place in his family, their joy and their delight, he would be an exiled creature, abandoned and alone.

He cried out in protest, “My punishment is more than I can bear!” God was taking away from him everything he had thought to gain by removing his brother, the stumbling block. And if he was driven from the land, wouldn’t he also be driven from the presence of God altogether? And that would mean away from His protection – and how long would he survive?

But God had made provision for that as well, marking the murderer and outcast with the seal of his protection, and as Cain stumbled, despairing into the darkness that would endure all his days, a terrible possibility gripped his mind. What if the stumbling block to all he had dreamed of had never been Abel? What if it had been himself?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Going Home

He was going home. It wouldn’t be very long now, only a matter of days at most until the soldiers would come to his cell and drag him out to the executioner’s block. Death was still the last enemy, but Jesus had conquered death and hell and made them captive. There was no fear. His work was done, and he was ready to be with Christ, which was far better. He would be home, and nothing could ever separate him from the love of God.

He watched the moving light of his one poor candle flame reflected on the damp walls of his cell, and thought back across the life that he had lived. It was not at all the life he had expected, the comfortable, respectable life of a successful, influential Jewish rabbi; instead he had been imprisoned many times, flogged, stoned, shipwrecked, and lived a life of constant danger. But it was a life with Jesus at the centre of it, and he did not regret it for a moment. He pondered.

“I have fought the good fight ..” Yes, there were so many bad fights out there that a man could spend his life in: fights for riches, prestige and power. And there was the worst fight of all: fighting against God. Even now, after all these years of grace, he winced just a little at the memory. He had been so zealous, so eager to serve the Holy One, and he had totally misunderstood what God wanted. He had totally misunderstood who God was. And God, in mercy, had stopped him in his tracks and turned him round in the opposite direction, and had given him something worth more than his own life to fight for. And then, as if that wasn’t wonder enough, He had armed him for the battle in the armour that was Christ Himself.

“I have finished the race ..” Yes, that was true too. There had been so many times when he wished it was over, and he could go home to the God who had captured his heart. But he had a job to do, and a race to run, and the victor’s crown was for those who persevered to the end. Only God knew where the finish line was. So he had kept on going, as single minded as an athlete running in the games, but for a prize immeasurably greater, a crown of righteousness that awaited him.

“I have kept the faith ..” Yet it was not he who had done it, but Christ who so laid hold of him. He had kept the law so keenly, seeking to prove and promote his own righteousness – then he had seen the righteousness of Christ and known that the best he could ever do was rotten to the core. But it didn’t matter, because what he could never have done, Jesus had done for him. It was as the bond slave of Christ Jesus that he had learned the glorious liberty of the children of God. And he jealously guarded the churches, lest they, in turn, should trade in their dependence on Jesus alone for a bowl of legalistic pottage. And now Christ, whom he had clung to as a drowning man clings to a spar, would carry Him home as the spoils of his triumph.

He smiled in wonder, acknowledging once again, that it was love that mattered. The battle, the marathon, the fidelity – they were only possible because God Himself, with love beyond all comprehension, had reached out across the darkness of sin and death, and planted such responsive love in his own heart, that everything else was dust and ashes in comparison. And in that love he was always, already, at home.