Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Strangest Night of All

We were still several miles from Bethlehem when my pains began. At first I said nothing, the last thing I wanted was to give Joseph something else to worry about; he had taken so much upon himself already, and I knew that my advanced pregnancy had already made the journey slower than he had expected. And after all, what else could we do but press on? Giving birth by the side of the road was definitely not what either of us wanted. Besides, like a chord of strange music playing in the back of my mind, alien and disturbing, yet marvellously harmonic, were the ancient prophecies that I had heard since childhood, (never guessing that my own life would be bound up in them), and the prophecies clearly stated that this child would be born in Bethlehem, the city of his forefather David.

Joseph soon realised, and I saw the concern in his eyes, but we had to continue, so he tried to ease my discomfort, knowing that there was very little he could do, except find me somewhere safe as soon as possible.

But nothing was going to be easy that night, and it crossed my mind to wonder why God, who had so marvellously engineered our presence in Bethlehem through Caesar’s decree, could not have organised a room in an inn as well. I did not yet understand how totally the Messiah was going to be identified with the outcast and the overlooked. But in the end someone took pity on us and offered us room in their stable. It was a frowsty, smelly sort of place, but the straw was fairly clean, and at least it was safe and private.

I remember surprisingly little about the birth – I was in a place so overcome by weariness and the painful forces of my own body that normal thinking and perception were suspended. But I remember that Joseph’s hands were gentle, and surprisingly capable, and I remember how my child’s first cry woke something inside me, something so deeply maternal that I felt compassion for the whole world.

Yet even then our night was not over. It was the deadest hour of the night, yet, seeping through the cracks between the planks was such light, as if the stars themselves had caught fire with the glory of heaven. And music, too faint to hear clearly, but the merest note of it lifted my heart in wonder and praise, The strangeness of it all should have been disturbing, but nothing was normal that night. The veil that normally separates the things of heaven from our earthly sight and been pulled back a little, and as I held the newborn child I could feel that I was in a place where the presence of God was no longer a thing of terror, such as the prophets of old had known, but as close and as necessary as the breath of our own bodies. And all was wondrously well.

Then there came shepherds from the hills, total strangers who knew, not only that the child had been born, but who he was. They told us a story of angels – but I already understood! I had no words left though, so I simply smiled and held up the baby to their view as they knelt there, in this crazy stable, this impossible holy place, and worshipped their King and Saviour. There will never be another night like that until the world is done with its weary circles, and God, in His infinite love, comes down to re-form creation

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Invitation

They didn’t get invited anywhere very often. In fact, in many people’s eyes they were virtually outcasts. Shepherds weren’t nice polite, genteel city folk. Sheep herding was a rough, violent dirty business. You didn’t get hired to guard the temple flocks by being smooth and scholarly like a priest. Suavity and refinement were highly regarded in the temple; if a man wanted preferment and promotion there he needed a scholarly mind, smooth subtle speech, and clean, well kept hands fit to handle the scrolls. But the priests were not above getting men they otherwise despised to do their dirty work for them. Once shepherding had been respected: Abraham had flocks and herds, and King David had been a shepherd. But that was a thousand years ago, and Israel no longer wanted men who had been trained in battle by defending the flocks since they were children; this was a different age, the age of the Pax Romana; and the watchword now was peaceful coexistence, not resistance to the oppressor.

So the shepherds were marginalised more than ever, even little villages like Bethlehem were getting too sophisticated for such frontier men, such throwbacks to a more primitive age. They appreciated the lambs for their sacrifices and their Passover feasts, but that didn’t mean they had to appreciate the men who protected them from wild beasts and all manner of human thievery, the men who cared for the ill and the wounded creatures and went searching for those who went missing, knowing that every animal that could not be accounted for would be claimed from their wages.

Tonight, though,  it was peaceful out on the hills. The spring night was mild; the sheep dozed or nibbled on the fresh new grass, and the stars were frost-sharp in the sky. It felt as if the whole world was at rest, and they were glad to gather round their own small fire, content in each other’s company and the deep silence of the darkest hour. They might not be very welcome at the temple, but this was a night on which even outcasts could imagine that they belonged, and that the embrace of God was wider than that of those who spoke in His name.

But then their peace turned to terror, for it seemed that the night sky was suddenly torn apart by an intensity of light too much for this mortal world, and they hid their faces in fear. But there was one who stood in the midst of the glory and spoke to them. “Do not be afraid,” he said, “there is nothing to fear. It is good news, news of unimaginable joy for all people, that I have come to bring you. For to you,” (and he paused and looked at them, so there could be no mistaking that they were the ones he meant) “to you there is born this day, in Bethlehem, the city of David, your Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord. You will find him wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a feed trough.” And, before their astonished eyes, the whole sky was alight with angels, and the beauty of their songs of praise overwhelmed the shepherd’s hearts.

Only when it was finished, when they looked again at each other with wonder in their eyes, did they speak to each other and say, “let’s go to Bethlehem and see this marvellous thing we were told about!” For how could they refuse an invitation that came from God Himself?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Joseph Speaks

Lord, I never asked for this.

I am such an ordinary man,
Trying to do my job and pay my bills
Taking pride in the work of my hands;
These calloused fingers, rough from the wood’s coarse grain
Scarred from the sharp-edged learning of my trade,
Patient to smooth and straighten, to make beauty.

I wanted what most normal men desire:
The wife I loved, her smile to light my days,
Small children with her eyes and my strong bones,
In time a son to learn my trade from me,
And Galilee was all the world I knew.

And then you came
Like the whirlwind that met with Job, tossing my life around,
So I no longer know what stands up straight:
The girl I love is bearing God’s own son,
And I walk humbled by this miracle,
Stumbling confused, nigh too afraid to touch,
Amazed, confounded, wondering who she is
And what my part is ..

How do I raise my God?
How do I keep the Lord almighty safe?
Of what stuff am I made to walk this path?
And must I teach the Saviour of mankind
The way to properly join two beams of wood,
And ask his hands to hold the nails for me?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Leaving Home

It was the pattern set when the first couple had to leave the garden. The tearing pain of departure was written into the very fabric of humanity, and so it continued down through the centuries. Some left willingly, called by faith or excitement, others left reluctantly, or in fear and anguish, but the pattern continued:

The man who killed his brother and had to flee to the east of Eden.

The man who was called forth, together with his whole family, to seek a country he had never seen, promised by God to be the inheritance of descendants he did not yet have.

The man who fled his brother’s wrath after stealing his birthright and blessing, and encountered a vision of angels in the midst of his desolation.

The man who was sold into slavery by his brothers, was taken in chains to a foreign land, rose to great prominence and eventually saved those same brothers from starvation

The man who was first taken from his birth home to be raised in a palace, then forced to flee into the wilderness to escape charges of homicide, only to return, many years later to be the leader of his people

A whole nation escaping from slavery, and from the only land they had ever known, but unable to progress to a new home because they still carried their slavery in their hearts.

A child taken from his mother’s arms to be raised in the home of an aging priest, where he encounters God whom the priest cannot hear

A shepherd boy sent to the palace of a sad, mad king, only to become a fugitive from the king’s jealousy and living as an outlaw in the wilderness

A whole nation sent into exile amongst the alien Babylonians, and discovering, in the very throes of their hearts’ hunger that they do have an identity as the people of God.

And then, because he loved us more than his own life, the Son of God came down into our humanity, leaving behind absolute glory to walk the muddy, desperate paths of our brokenness, confined to the clumsy powerlessness of human flesh. For thirty three years he entered into our exile; always carrying with him the elusive fragrance of immeasurable grace. But that was not far enough for God to go, he plunged the depths of our separation, right down to the furthest reaches of death. There was nowhere further than hell that he could go, so he did, and then returned in victory with the promise that he would bring his people home.

And still, for two millennia since, his people have left their homes. Oh, some have done it literally – forced from their homes by persecution, or voluntarily leaving home so that those who are not their own people can learn of a hope and a promise and a love that breaks through the boundaries of this world and will not be stopped.

But, really, all his people are homeless, for the shadowlands of this world are no longer enough for them, and their true home has not yet been revealed. So they wait, strangers and pilgrims, seekers after a city which is to come, and their exile has become their glory

Saturday, December 07, 2013

They Hoped

From the very beginning they were looking forward. The story was passed down how that, on the very day that the world was blighted, God had promised that one day the seed of their enemy, the serpent, would be crushed by the seed of the woman. Some forgot, or didn’t care, but others remembered, and, around the fire at night, or when they paused in the heat of the day’s toil, sometimes they would take out that old story and wonder what it meant. They never doubted it meant something.

Centuries passed and wickedness grew, until the time of the flood. Then, after that time of terror, God gave them another promise of mercy and sealed it with a rainbow. Again, they took heart and fresh courage from the promise.

Then there came a man called Abram, old and childless, and called by God to be homeless as well. To this man God promised offspring through whom the whole world would be blessed. Abram in faith believed, and a new chapter of hope for humanity began in the empty desert spaces.

The years passed and the promises multiplied. To the descendants of Abram, now Abraham, would come one who was anointed by God for a task of redemption that no one else could accomplish. He would be a king like David, a prophet like Moses, the secret arrow polished by the Lord. He would bring in a kingdom that could never fail, he would be despised and rejected, he would come to set the captives free. And some cared nothing for these promises, but others hoped and trusted that one day the Consolation of Israel would arrive.

And he came, and the world esteemed him not, but others would be able to say later that they beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. And he died and was buried, and rose again from the dead and ascended to the Father, leaving behind him a new hope: that some day he would come again, and in that day there would be a new heaven and new earth, and every tear would be wiped away forever. And meanwhile? Death had been overcome, sin had been atoned for, and the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, had come to dwell in their hearts.

And so they hoped, and for 2,000 years they have continued to hope. They have hoped in the midst of persecution – thrown to the lions, executed by machine gun, enduring every cruelty that those who hated them could conceive. They have hoped in the midst of plenty, when the siren song of this world’s satisfactions almost drowned out the whisper of their praise; they have hoped in the midst of scarcity, praying desperately for daily bread for themselves and their children. They have hoped as they had to make stark moral choices, and as they blundered through mazes of moral uncertainty. They have hoped resting quietly in the sure love of the Father, and they have hoped as their old enemy whispered in their ear that they were forsaken. They have hoped in their laughter, and hoped in their tears, and hoped yet in that grey, exhausted place where neither laughter or tears have any meaning. And in hope they have persevered, they have loved, they have learned to forgive and be forgiven. And in hope they have prayed, down through the centuries, the same heartfelt prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done ...”

Who are they? Most of them are nobodies in history, and the world has passed them by. But in eternity they are known, each one, by name, for they are the glorious saints of God.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Shepherd

The flock were scattered across the bitter dry hills of the world. Some had meandered their way into lush valleys, but there were poisoned weeds hidden in the grass, and they had no shepherd to keep them safe. Some were struggling to survive in places where the pasture was scant and bitter. Some were dried out with longing because they could not find still water where it was safe to drink, only a dusty puddle here and there. Some had drunk from unclean water and were burdened with deep sickness. Some had perished, falling from rocky paths, or straying too close to the edge desperate to reach food. Others, many others, had fallen prey to lions and wolves, who found them easy meat when there was no shepherd to protect them. Some had once known a shepherd’s care, but had sought their own way instead, and now they were desperately alone. All of them were afraid, all of them were defenceless.

Oh, in some places there were those who called themselves shepherds. They strutted as if their shepherds’ crooks were badges of high office, they held feast days in their own honour, but the wise noticed that they roasted from their own flock as the high point of their feasts. For they did not love the sheep, they cared only for their own gain, and managed aright, there could be great gain in shepherding. The sheep could be fleeced, the sheep could be sold, the sheep could be devoured – and all without actually caring for them! They never cared for the weak and the sick, or searched for the lost; they did not find them safe pasture or still waters for their thirst. There was nowhere the sheep could lie down in safety and find the rest they craved. There was no one to protect them from the wild beasts – when a wolf or a lion appeared, these false shepherds ran away. Their shepherds’ crooks remained covered in gilt and bright paint, for they had never been used for the dirty messy joyful work of caring for the sheep. And the sheep themselves, in their fear and despair, would sometimes turn and hurt one another, and the strong grew fat and sleek, and the weak went to the wall; the strong trampled the pasture and left nothing for the others.

But there was one who loved the sheep, who loved them more than his own life. The Lord Almighty, the Maker of the sheep, would not be silent forever. He Himself, the True Shepherd would come to the rescue of His sheep. He would judge the false shepherds, and not let them harm his flock any longer. He would go forth into the storms and the depths of darkness, He would cross the dreadful river and go forth into the barren wastelands, He would endure the unendurable to find His sheep and bring them safely back. For He is the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep – for one reason and reason only – because He loves them so very, much!

And there will be one flock, and one shepherd, and His sheep will go in and out and find pasture, secure forever in His care.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Confrontation

I will never forget that day, it is graven into my heart for all my mortal years until I am done forever with the cares and battles of this world. It was the day when I re-discovered shame and guilt, and realised that God’s favour and blessing did not mean that everything I chose to do would be blameless in His sight. I was exposed, I was undone, and the truth of my folly, my presumptuous, sinful folly, was a sword through my heart and ashes in my mouth. And in my foolish arrogance I had had no idea; or, for I must be strictly truthful now, I had chosen to have no idea.

It all began innocuously enough. The prophet Nathan was welcomed into my presence, as he was always welcome who spoke on the Lord’s behalf, and he proceeded to tell me a story about a rich man, a poor man and a sheep. I assumed it was a case of injustice in the land that he wanted me to respond to, and, as I listened, I grew angry. This case was a travesty of all that God had called us to in his covenant, an action without justice or pity. A rich man, with herds and flocks to spare had a guest, and instead of taking one of his own beasts to slaughter to feed the stranger, he had helped himself to the ewe lamb that was the poor man’s only possession. How dare he do such a thing in God’s Israel! Dearly would he pay for such a transgression! I did not know that I was passing sentence on myself.

Then came the moment that is seared in my memory, the moment when Nathan raised his hand, pointed his finger at me (me, the king!) and said, “You are the man!” I looked at him aghast – what was he talking about? I hadn’t stolen any sheep! But as he continued, each word pried open my foolish blind heart, exposing the truth of my actions. Like the rich man in the story, I had plenty, riches in abundance – and wives! Yet I had helped myself to the wife of the loyal Hittite without a second thought, and then, when the inevitable happened and she fell pregnant, I had connived at his murder to hide my shame. But the very Lord whom I claim to love with all my soul does not conspire with deeds of darkness, or condone injustice or the oppression of the poor. The very deeds I had buried in secret to assuage my guilt were now announced before the whole court in the garish light of day, and by my own response I had declared myself guilty, a man of injustice and covetous lust.

I felt the inevitable rush inside me to deny my sin, to condemn my condemner, but what would have been the point? In the eyes of God I was condemned, and there is no darkness black enough to hide my sins from him, and to be adrift from God is to be adrift from life itself. All my conniving, my scheming, my evil compounded upon evil to hide the truth, were revealed in that moment in all their pathetic horribleness. I, who had seen myself as the king who was more godly than Saul, was now revealed to have sinned in ways which Saul never had. But this was no time to luxuriate in shame, as if my sin had let me down and besmirched me. In that moment I understood, as never before, that my sin was myself, those decisions that led me into such a path of evil came from motives that were laid bare in my heart – motives of entitlement and self-exaltation. The only thing left was to cry to God for mercy, knowing, even as I did so, that His mercy was already for me. He knew my sin before I did, and, broken with contrition, I marvelled that His love had never left me and never would.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Finally remembering

There are some men who cannot forget their darkest times, who replay the misery and despair of those events over and over again as they lie on their beds, restlessly afraid that the shadows shall pursue them all the days of their life. But some men are of another kind, when they return to a pleasanter place, they would rather live as if there were no gloom behind them, and never had been. They never look back over their shoulders, and if you detect any nervousness or tentativeness about them, they will deny all knowledge or cause.

Such a man was the king’s cupbearer. Others in the king’s service might recall the time when he, along with the chief baker, was imprisoned, but he had made it very clear, within a few days, that he had no intention of ever talking about it, so they soon learned not to mention it to him. And, in truth, there was so much else to gossip about in Pharaoh’s palace, a new scandal every week at least, that it was soon forgotten in preference to far more recent and exciting things. And, apart from his immediate family, no one remembered the baker at all, who had been imprisoned at the same time and condemned to death instead. But the cupbearer was doubly careful not to offend again.

Two years passed, and never once did the cupbearer give a thought to that difficult time, or to that Hebrew in the prison whom he had promised to mention to Pharaoh. It was all swept away behind a wilful curtain of forgetfulness. Then, one night, Pharaoh had a dream, a very strange dream, about gaunt, ugly cows devouring fat cows, and fine heads of grain being swallowed up by ones that were meagre and scorched. Everyone was bewildered, and the wisest in the land could find no meaning in it. That was when the cupbearer remembered ...

He and the chief baker had been thrown into prison after angering Pharaoh, and they had both been terrified. Their very lives hung on the king’s whim, and who knew what would become of them? Life... death... rotting their lives away as forgotten men? Anything was possible! Their only solace was the Hebrew, Joseph, who attended them, a fellow prisoner like themselves, but given a lot of responsibility. He was a kind man, and as they were to discover, a man gifted with more-than-human wisdom and insight. For one night the cupbearer and the baker both dreamed potent dreams which they could not understand. But Joseph could, and as gently as he could, he explained to them that in three days time (which was Pharaoh’s birthday), the cupbearer would be restored to his position, and the baker’s life would end. And so it had come to pass, and Joseph had specifically asked him to mention his case to Pharaoh, since he was an innocent man wrongfully imprisoned. Until this moment the cupbearer had totally forgotten.

But now he remembered, and stepped forward, and spoke to Pharaoh, telling him about the young Hebrew he had met in prison, and how this man had the ability to interpret dreams. So Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and listened to him, and because of this Egypt was saved from the famine which was to come.

Many years later, the cupbearer would reminisce about his own tiny, but so important part in saving Egypt from famine. But, alone on his bed, he sometimes wondered if the whole ordeal he went through, way back then, his imprisonment and strange dream, didn’t  all happen just so he could know about Joseph, and bring him to Pharaoh’s attention at the crucial moment. But that would mean that Joseph’s God, who had neither temple or statue, really did rule over every detail of the world ...

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The secret

It took her a while to believe it had really happened – the whole thing was so wildly improbable (“just like Sarah, just like Sarah,” she kept thinking). And the only thing that helped her keep a grip on this impossible reality was the daily experience of her husband’s loss of speech (so NOT like Zechariah!).  At first, when he had laboriously written out what had happened to him the temple she had seriously wondered if he had imagined the whole thing, if the delusion of an angelic encounter and his new-found inability to speak were, both together, the symptoms of some strange disease, and she had feared the possibility that she would find herself married to a madman. But as time passed, and her husband still seemed sane and healthy in every other respect, she was able to put aside that particular fear, replacing it with one of a very different kind. The evidence of her own body and the evidence of her husband’s story corroborated one another, and she was overcome by awe.

For five months she hid herself away, and told nobody else what was happening. There was so much to consider, to re-think, to marvel at. Never before had she felt so exultant; never before had she felt so vulnerable. God had taken away the shame and reproach of her barrenness, no longer would she be a figure of scorn for her failure to fulfil the principal function of a wife and preserve her husband’s patrimony in Israel for the next generation. She could hold her head up high in the world, she had accomplished, finally, what every uneducated labourer’s wife seemed to manage without a second thought. But, at the same time, there was something slightly absurd in a woman of her age going around with a pregnant belly. She thought of the possible coarse jests, the silly awkward remarks, and knew that she was not yet ready to face the world. This was the most sacred, amazing, humbling thing that had ever happened to her, and she needed time to savour it, to turn it over in her mind and consider its meaning from every possible angle before she let anyone else debase her experience by the least tone or gesture.

She did not expect it to be the angel of the Lord who told her secret – that same Gabriel who had appeared to her husband in the Temple and told him that her barrenness was ending and a wonderful son would be born to them, and then, when her husband (always speaking before he had time to think things through!) expressed his doubts at such an unlikely event, declared that Zechariah would lose the power of speech until all these things had taken place. Now this same angel had spoken to her young cousin Mary, up in Galilee, and told her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy. For Mary had come bearing an even greater miracle, for she too was pregnant, though still a virgin! And her child was the child for whom the faithful through the centuries had been waiting – the Messiah, the Lord! And in that moment Elizabeth saw and understood that her delicacy and secrecy wasn’t needed anymore: this child-to-be, this gift she had been given, was part of a much larger story, a story larger than the whole world. One day all the world would know her story, but that didn’t matter either, what mattered was that God had come to visit and redeem His people.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

The Beginning

The first time I saw Him was down by the Jordan. We had gone down there to see for ourselves what this man John was all about who was drawing such crowds, word about him had travelled as far north as Galilee, and we wanted to find out for ourselves. All our lives the whole of Israel had been buzzing with rumours of one potential Messiah or another, and we were tired of rumours and hearsay. So, innocently enough, we came down to check him out. We had no idea that this was the beginning of a sequence of events that would change all our lives forever, and, in fact, would change the whole world, though the world knew it not.
John the Baptiser was not like anyone we had known before, and we were convicted by his message of repentance, and joined with the many people who were confessing their sins and coming forward to be baptised. We knew what baptism meant: re-entry into the covenant with all its implications that we had been outside of it beforehand, and we acknowledged that we had been walking astray. We hung around: fascinated and energised, we became John’s disciples. We cheered inwardly when he put the Pharisees and the Sadducees in their place; none of us would have dared to call them a ‘brood of vipers’, or berate them for the hypocrisy we had often suspected. But as he lambasted them for claiming that descent from Abraham was all the holiness we needed, we wondered who Abraham’s true children were and what true holiness looked like. Surely one didn’t have to dress in itchy camel’s hair like John and be a wild man of the desert in order to be what God wanted? And who was John anyway? He claimed, over and over again, that he was NOT the Messiah, just a voice crying in the wilderness. We had a keen sense of anticipation that something more was going to happen.
Then He came. There was nothing, at a glance, to set him apart from any of the others, he simply lined up with the other men waiting for John to baptise them.  It was John’s reaction that made us aware that this man was very different to all the others. “Behold,” he said to us, “this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
We had no idea what he meant, but we glanced at each other, and moved in closer. As the man came up requesting baptism, John became perturbed: “No!” he gasped, “it is you who should be baptising me!”
 “No,” replied the Stranger, the Holy One, the Creator of all things, “ this is the way it must be done in order to fulfil all righteousness,” and John, with a strange look on his face did so.
We watched intently, certain that something important was happening, and thus we saw what took place when He came up out of the water, though most of the crowd heard nothing but a loud noise. But we saw and we heard and we bear witness that the heavens opened directly above this man and the form of a dove came down and lit upon Him, and a voice spoke out of heaven saying, “This is my beloved son. I am well pleased with Him.”

We watched, we listened and we marvelled; some time later when He called us, we became His disciples. But it was a long, long time before we understood.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mistaken Identity

She wondered if he noticed she was trembling, but then, if he did, he would have no idea why. There were so many reasons that a bride might tremble on her wedding day: shyness, eagerness, the stress of the occasion; in fact it was probably almost normal. The fact that she was afraid of being found out would not even enter the bridegroom’s mind. Why should it? That, after all, was the whole point of the deception.

She couldn’t remember when the idea had first been raised – it certainly felt like it had been looming over her forever! She, and her sister, had certainly been aware of it for a year or two; how much longer her father had been plotting and turning the idea over in his mind was something she could only guess. But then her father was always a schemer and his daughters, even his beloved Rachel, were only pawns in his game, his perpetual game of self-enlargement. And this time he really felt he was pulling off a master-stroke – the fact that he could well be ruining both his daughters’ lives meant nothing compared to that!

She also knew that her sister would never forgive her for getting Jacob first, for having that wedding night of blissful consummation before he learned the horrible truth. And who knew how he would react then, or if, in his fury at being tricked he would then spurn Rachel and leave them forever? Anything was possible. Rachel needed someone to be angry with, and it was much easier to be angry with the plain sister nobody cared for than to express her anger at her father and arouse his wrath. She couldn’t see, as Leah saw so clearly, that it was their Father who was betraying them both.  In her eyes Leah was the traitor who was stealing her Jacob, who had fixed his heart on Rachel at first meeting, seven years ago, and never wavered since. Who knew what years of misery would come from this one night’s deed?

And yet, even while Leah felt helplessly trapped between two strong men, she blamed herself as well, because she had a secret which her father had never thought of, but which her sister suspected with all the heightened suspicion of her jealous heart. For she too loved Jacob – fine, strong, clever, handsome, God-fearing Jacob – the man who never looked her way and barely knew she existed. With all the fervour of an unwanted, unloved woman, she yearned for him. And she knew, with the harsh self-knowledge of the rejected, that no one would ever want her for her own sake. To her father she was a useless bargaining chip (at least until he came up with this scheme in which she could be used to double her sister’s value), to her sister she was either to be despised or suspected. Motherhood was her only chance to gain any value in the world. A woman who bore strong sons was worth something. And her only hope of motherhood lay in going through this ceremony of deception and pray that, in his eagerness, Jacob would continue to mistake her for her sister for just a few more hours. Was it any wonder she trembled?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Hero?

It was time to go to the Temple if he wanted an unhurried walk through the streets of Jerusalem before arriving at the time of sacrifice. Of course there was a shorter route, but this way he could stroll through the main thoroughfare and see and be seen by as many people as possible. And though his own secret pride in his superior holiness was a great source of pleasure to him, the public acknowledgements of others were even sweeter. And, after all, he was offering a public service. Might not a glimpse of his shining righteousness inspire others and condemn sinners?

It was a good and honourable thing to be a Pharisee. The pedigree of their movement dated back to the return from the Babylonian exile, when a group of Jewish leaders, determined that Israel should never be forced out of the Promised Land again, decided that they would live such holy lives that God would never be displeased with them again. So they studied the Law and decided that since Israel was called to be a nation of priests and a holy nation, then that was the way that should live, following all the commandments that were given especially to the priesthood, and urging others to do the same. It was an unfortunate fact of life that only the wealthy (or those who, like the priests, were supported by other means) could possibly live by these rules, since those who must labour to survive had neither the means nor the leisure to follow every prescription of the priestly laws. This meant, by his calculation, that the Pharisees were the true saviours of Israel!

As he strolled through the streets of Jerusalem, he felt so thankful to be who he was. These others – the hated Roman soldiers, the self-important merchants,  the craftsmen with their wares, the beggars in their filth and poverty – should be so thankful that men like him existed to please God on their behalf. He was worth so much more than they were!

He wandered into the temple and found himself an appropriate place to stand, where the light reflected on him in a very pleasing way. In order to edify people and show his superiority, it was necessary that he should be as noticeable as possible. He commenced his prayer, as loudly as possible, so that the maximum number could hear him amidst the general hubbub:

“Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men! Look at this riff raff: thieves, adulterers, probably murderers some of them, they certainly look the part! And then Lord, look at me: I’m exemplary. I fast twice a week and I give you back a tithe of absolutely everything. See, look at that tax collector over there – the worst kind of Israelite there is! Thank you that I am so much better than he is!”

The tax collector meanwhile had slipped into the temple as unobtrusively as possible, wrapping his guilt and misery around him like a shielding cloak. The burden of who he was and who he had failed to be was intolerable. The shame was all engulfing. But the more he grew aware of the holiness of the God whom he had come to seek, the more it weighed him down, almost to the point of obliteration. So, while the Pharisee prayed his self-congratulations, he cowered in the corner and cried out aloud his despair, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!”

And Jesus said that it was this man, and not the other, who went home justified before God!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Least of These

They were the nobodies, the shadow-people, the ones that everybody overlooked, and nobody cared for. People turned aside with loathing from the marks and sores upon their skin, the loss of their fingers and noses and toes; few were willing to admit in these sophisticated days that the greater cause of terror was their empty eyes. To be a leper was to be already dead while you still walked in the living world: dead to all those who had loved you, dead to your property and the skills by which you had earned it, and, worst of all, dead to the worship of God and the spiritual life of your people. Many believed, in the face of such incomprehensible misfortune, that they must be dead to God as well. They were the least in Israel, and in a time of siege and famine, nobody gave them a thought.

They huddled at the entrance to the city gate of Samaria, and considered their options. Within the gate there was severe famine in the city of Samaria; outside the gate was the besieging army of the Arameans. If they stayed where they were, neither in nor out, they would surely die; if they entered the city there was only death by starvation; perhaps the enemy army was their only hope. So, they decided, they would go and surrender to the Arameans. They might well be put to the sword, but death was a certainty anyway, and at least there was a chance this way that their lives might be spared.

So, in the grey light of dusk the grey men crept through the confusion of shadows to the enemy camp, quietly as the flight of owls, for they expected that their lives could be forfeit at any moment. But their caution was needless – there was no one there! The lepers had no idea that the prophet Elisha had prophesied the lifting of the siege, or that the hand of Almighty God Himself had caused the Arameans to imagine they heard the sound of war chariots, so that they fled in terror, for they were the outcasts, the least of men, and knew nothing of these things. All they knew was that only the horses and donkeys remained, the men had fled, and the deserted tents were full of their riches and an abundance of food. 

So they took for themselves all that they wanted and more, and only when they were sated did they remember the great need of their countrymen. They looked sheepishly at each other. “This isn’t right,” they said, “the whole starving city should be told about this good news! We would be culpable if we waited till daylight. Let’s go to the palace and tell them now!”

So they went back towards the city, no longer shrinking into the shadows of fear, but shouting out this miracle of sudden abundance. The gatekeepers took up the message, and soon the whole city knew. It was from the mouths of the disregarded and shunned, the least of them all, that that the truth of their deliverance came. And the city rejoiced.

Monday, October 07, 2013

More than the watchman waits for the morning ..

Till the morning comes we will wait,
Stiff in cold darkness,
Wary of old betrayals, but believing,
Still, against every sense, that morning comes.

We remember daylight
As children remember a dream where grass was greener,
Through the foggy lens of memory
Focusing on hope.

Have the stars grown paler?
Is that a breath of wind in the stoic silence?
Has something moved and changed, do the birds sleep lighter?
Is the east a smudge less dark?

Breathe in, breathe out.

You must understand, we do not speak our questions,
Lest the silence snaps and the earth retreats from turning;
Lest the flowers clench more shut, and the air grows harder,
Lest we betray our faith’s fragility.

Still we wait for the morning.
Our limbs grow heavy-stiff, and we wait for morning.
Our throats are tension-dry, and we wait for morning.
Our clocks crawl slow as ice, and we wait for morning.

We do not own the stars.

Softer than a whisper
Comes song of distant bird – did we really hear it?
Do the small things of night turn at last to slumber?
Can gritted eyes see true? Is the wan moon sinking?

Wake angel hosts, awake!

See the sun in promise
Send its outriders forth to push back the night
Now the horizon smiles in pearly greyness
At last, it surely comes! The Light! The Light!

Saturday, October 05, 2013


It was a terrible disappointment, after all my hard work. I had tried so hard to be accepted in this new town. I had spent hours listening to the “in” people to learn the local slang (not that they would ever demean themselves by calling it slang, it was just the way the insiders talked around here, and if you didn’t talk like that then you were not one of them). I had bought tickets to all the concerts and dressed in my best clothes, carefully observing what was the acceptable ‘look’ around here. Sure, I made a few minor blunders while I was learning the ropes, but I learned quickly. It’s one of the things I’m good at.  I know how to spend my money to the best effect, not rubbing it in people’s faces with vulgar ostentation, but using it to position myself as one who has already ‘arrived’, not (may heaven defend me!) revealing myself as that most pitiful of creatures, a social climber.  I knew how to talk wine and food, hinted at my “family property” way up north, and played my part sublimely well.

Apparently I didn’t do as well as I thought I had. The time came to throw my big Christmas party, an “intimate” dinner party for about 100 people. I consulted the best caterers money could buy, lined up a special chef to be flown in for the occasion, and sent out ‘save the date’ cards well in advance. Everyone knows how quickly the social calendar fills up at certain times of year! And the response seemed very positive. So I did it all (with a lot of paid help, of course – my social secretary has her finger on every detail) – the flowers, the table linens, even antique silverware was purchased through discreet channels so it would look like family heirlooms. And, knowing that chamber music was the fashion among these people (though, to be honest, I prefer something livelier myself), I even booked a string quartet from the Conservatorium of Music. I was rather impressed with myself, actually.

Well, I’ve heard it said that pride comes before a fall, and yes, I didn’t actually pull it off at all. When my secretary sent out the formal invitations just beforehand (that was the way they did things round here) the excuses started trickling back. One man had suddenly got married (for the fourth time, I believe) and they would be spending some ‘alone’ time; another had just bought a new property out of town and needed to go and check it out before the sale was finalised; another wanted to buy a racehorse (just before Christmas?) and so it went on, an absolute deluge of excuses.

I was devastated. What was I going to do? It was too late to cancel anything; all the machinery for a big event was in motion, a juggernaut which I didn’t know how to stop. It was then that I had my brilliant idea. There were people who would certainly accept an invitation, whose social calendars were so empty that they didn’t even exist, and I knew exactly where to find them: the homeless shelter, the women’s refuge, the orphanage, the old people’s home. My secretary rang around, and, to our mutual amazement, exactly 100 people were able to come!

So we went ahead. We put out the best china, the antique silver, and the exquisite linens and briefed the waiters on what we wanted. And then they arrived, not looking bored and blank like the ‘in’ people always do (at least when they look at me) but with faces shining with wonder, and more than a few tears. Their joy sang in the air, floating above the candles like a breath of the perfume of Paradise, and even the professionals I had hired forgot to be distant and formal and became real human beings with huge hearts and huge smiles.

It was the best party I have ever been to, and I wonder why I had ever bothered with the other kind.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Unwelcome Guest

She knew that she shouldn’t be there. To tell the truth, there wasn’t anywhere she was supposed to be publicly and openly. The rules of society decreed that a woman like her belonged to the dark and hidden corners of life, out of sight and out of mind, scuttling and skulking at the margins and corners of life like some species of human cockroach that could disappear into a crack before anyone had to acknowledge her presence. She was the scapegoat of their secret shame, bearing away their small town’s darkness into her own secret wilderness, so that they could walk unashamed in the open day. The fact that none of her notorious sins had been committed alone – could not have been by definition – was an irrelevance; she carried the shame of that sweat-soaked perfumed darkness while the men who had shared it with her paid for it with nothing except money.

Yet here she was, heavily veiled, to be sure, but vulnerable nonetheless. Money could insulate her; veils could hide her (for a little while at least); she had even learned to hold her head up and ignore the hissing whispers; but she knew of no protection from the acid shame that was eating up her soul. And it was because of that shame that she had come.

It was all because of the teacher, Jesus. She had been intent on slipping past the edges of the crowd when she heard him. He did not teach like any other rabbi, he was talking about a shepherd seeking a strayed sheep, a woman turning her house inside out to find a fallen coin, a father who threw away his dignity to welcome home a shameful son. His words were hope and life, perhaps God would still receive her even if people wouldn’t?

He had stretched her mind with wonder and her heart to breaking point, and so she came bearing with her the most precious thing she had, and slipped, along with the usual onlookers, into the Pharisee’s house, clutching her most precious possession. It was all she had to give, for, having sold herself for mere money, she no longer knew that she herself was worth more than all the perfumes of the world.

And she stood, and she listened, tasting the mercy of his words, until her heart was overwhelmed and her fears overcome in longing, and, casting aside her anonymity she ran to him and fell at his feet in tears. He did not draw away from her as if her very presence was pollution, and as she cried on his feet she felt all the shame and self-loathing draining from her. Lost in gratitude, she wiped his feet with her own hair and poured out the perfume she had brought. Its sweetness was nothing compared to the sweetness that sang in her soul. She heard the mocking, rejecting pharisaic voices, but they didn’t matter any more. She would never be welcome here, in the Pharisee’s home, she would probably never be welcome in her own hometown, but she was welcomed into the Kingdom of God, and she would follow this Jesus wherever He went.

She dared to raise her tear-blurred eyes and look at him, and tune in to the conversation going on above her head. “She loves much because she has been forgiven much,” said Jesus.  

Yes. Yes indeed.

Friday, September 20, 2013


It took many, many years before they knew that he had spoken truly  -- all the years of his growing up from the eager little boy who had spilled his dreams without a second thought, through the agonies of his adolescence and early adulthood, through to the resting place of his amazing success while still a fairly young man. But they did not share many of those years together, he was banished from their sight to a far country, to walk his bitter road alone. And not even his father believed that those dreams were true portents of his destiny.

Ironically, it was those same dreams of future grandeur that started him on the dreadful path of alienation from his brothers, the path downward into slavery, imprisonment and ultimate exaltation. As most men do, they judged his heart by the standards of their own motivations, and mistook his starry-eyed excitement for the kind of darkly jealous pride with which they had jostled each other for position in that tumultuous and complex family.  And seeing him through that prism, they noted all the other little signs of their father’s favour, favour which should have gone to them as Joseph’s seniors, and their hearts were hardened against him. And when the boy in the coat of privilege tattled primly to their father about their misdoings, their anger against him became murderous, So, when the opportunity presented, they sold him to the strangers from Midian, and his descent into Egypt began. Only his father mourned for him.

And the years in Egypt passed, and the young man passed from slave to prisoner to princely status, and his family knew nothing of it, nothing at all, until the famine drove them, desperate as beggars, to the palace of their despised brother to bargain with him for their bread. Sacks of grain he sold them, this strange distant Egyptian who seemed so stern and closed of face, and they had no idea that this man, their brother, wept behind closed doors for the wonder and the sorrow of it all, turning over and over in his mind the question that consumed him – was there any repentance in their hearts? Had they changed? Did they now know what it meant to truly be a brother? Had they learnt to care for something beyond their own immediate self-interest? It was overwhelming to know that he, the despised and ill-treated younger brother now held the power of life and death over the very men who had so terribly wronged him.

So he devised a plan to test their hearts. Sternly and officiously, he demanded that they return with his little brother Benjamin, keeping one of them hostage to ensure their good faith; and, when they did, he engineered things so that Benjamin, now in turn their father’s favourite, would be arrested as a thief. Would they take advantage of the situation to abandon him? But no, this time Judah stepped forward and offered himself in Benjamin’s place, and Joseph could no longer keep his distance. Sending all his attendants from the room, he disclosed himself to his brothers and they trembled, remembering how they had wronged him.

But Joseph, too, had been changed. There was no resentment or anger left, only wonder that God had used the whole sequence of events for the saving of many lives. And as they bowed now to their little brother, did they remember that dream, so long ago, that they had scorned, when he had seen them doing exactly that?

Monday, September 16, 2013

"In Heaven it is Alwaies Autumne" (Donne)

1. Winter

Here my beginnings, the dark solitude
Of mine own self; my bleak captivity,
The lonely reaches of my barrenness,
The numbing mists of settled misery.
Here dreamt no promise. Nullified by cold,
All hopes aborted ere conception known.
Only the bitter tracery of trees
Etched the close skies that loomed with weight of stone.
No fruit, no flower, never hope of life.
Never a breeze to whisper of the spring.               10
No soft of moisture but the leaden snow,
Weight of despair to blanket everything.
To blanket, with the winding-sheet of death,
All loveliness that longed to germinate,
Lest there should be some seed to seek the sun,
Some tendril of delight should infiltrate.
Lest life, or hope, should enter through some crack,
All, all was sealed with polar lifelessness.
Here sang no birds. Here, never nest was built.
Here music could find nothing to express.              20
All was stark desolation. All was waste.
All was the ice-bound desert of the heart.
Never came thaw to this frigidity,
Nor any sun, renewal to impart.

2. Spring

Then, at the solstice of my wretchedness,
Broke a new dawn that splintered fixed despair.
Warmth, from outside all worlds that I had known,
Softened the ice, and quickened the dead air.
Life laughed aloud in the sweet waters' song,
(Waters that danced, rejoicing to be free.)            30
Tendrils of promise frolicked in the wind,
Turbulent with a green vitality.
No more did the oppressive shroud of snow
Smother the glory of the singing earth.
I was made one with verdure newly born.
I was delivered; I was brought to birth.
I knelt and drank my fill from living streams;
I walked with wonder where the flowers sprang.
Trees put off all their dreary nakedness;
Birds their cantata'd alleluias sang.                       40
I was a day-old lamb. I skipped the hills
With feet of joy. My wool was washed so white,
I tasted innocence and found it sweet.
I knew myself reborn into delight.
I knew, or thought I knew, all blessed truth
In its simplicity. I was so young,
I had the leaping energy of love,
And I was glad to thaw me in the sun.

3. Summer

Some early growth must wither in this heat,
Burnt by the bare, remorseless light of day.           50
But, a fertility that dazzles me,
Overrules any losses or decay.
Often made weary by unvaried light,
Still, to call this sun mine, I will rejoice;
Glad in its splendour even when it burns,
Knowing its fullness is my only choice.
This is the season of my labouring;
Season of toil, when I am often spent.
Yet, I see harvest-promise on the trees,
And, in that sureness, I am well-content.              60
Never such freedom as the grass that springs
Quick from its cutting, lush to rise again.
Never such hope as that within my heart,
Ever renewed, though I'm cut down by sin.
And, though my blossom time shall not return,
Yet I shall glory, for I look ahead,
Towards a sun so bright it shall not burn,
But make me one with perfect light instead.

4. Autumn

Here is completeness. Here, the plenitude
Of heart's desire made perfect. No decay               70
Lessens its bounty now, nor ever shall;
Harvest of joy that will not go away.
Here is the end of journey, end of toil.
Here is the fruit whose flower was so sweet
Its scent beguiled the darkest hours of want;
Now, in fulfilment, I will take and eat.
Now I will drink, nor ever thirst again.
Love is the liquid of my soul's desire,
Immersed in which, I taste all true delight,
Fresh and untainted, perfect and entire.               80
No clouds adulterate the clarity
Of the blue consummation of a sky
Crystalled, that  worship's vision may pass through,
And, into everlasting glory, fly.
Who could wish other than this fruitfulness,
Fullness of mercy in maturity?
Here is no withering, but joy on joy;

Grace into grace for all eternity.

My Philosophy of Ministry

(draft version)
I believe that Jesus came to set the captives free.

I believe that our first and greatest freedom is to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
After this comes freedom from all our other captivities: from doubt, fear, resentment, sinful desires, deep woundedness and every other kind of human brokenness.

I believe that we live and minister in the now-and-not-yet of the Kingdom of God, where His grace breaks in but all things are not yet made right.

I believe that God has given to the Church the ministries of Word, Sacrament and Prayer as Means of Grace to a broken world, to reveal through them the powerful, unstoppable love of the Father, the redemptive love of the Son and the transformative love of the Holy Spirit.

I believe that God has liberally poured out on His people the gifts of the Spirit to equip us to engage in His work, but that these gifts cannot produce godly fruit unless they are used in loving servanthood.

I believe that God has equipped and called me to work within the structures of the church to minister to His people, to speak forth His love and show forth His grace, and to encourage them with the wonder of the great Hope that is set before us.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


Always, everywhere he went around Jerusalem, he could not escape dragging pain of the truth. It hurt, it hurt on so many levels that as soon as he grew numb, resigned to the ache that could not be denied, it would assault him from a different direction entirely, and once more cut him into shreds.

No one believed him. Not only did they not take him seriously, that would be bad enough, they had always tended to be a people who honoured God with their lips while their hearts were far from him, (and if their pious hypocrisy was an affront to his heart, what must it be to God?) but they didn’t even pretend to believe him. Openly they mocked his words, laughing in his face when he warned them of the calamity to come. Their tame prophets declared peace and prosperity, Jerusalem was a splendid city and a return to the glory-days of Solomon was just over the horizon. They could not see that their prosperity was built on the shallowest of foundations and that their days in the promised land were numbered because they cared so little for the keeping of God’s covenant. “You say, ’Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace,” he said to them, but they brushed aside his words like an annoying foolishness.

And that was the deeper problem that tore at his heart. Jerusalem was going to fall, and it would be terrible. Babylon was coming, and this time they would not be spared, as they were in the time of the Assyrians, when Sennacherib’s army decamped overnight. This time it would be for them as it had been for the northern kingdom of Israel then. A time of horror, grief and great pain would soon be upon them; they would be taken away into exile and no longer live in the land that God had promised to their ancestor Abraham. They had deliberately misunderstood the covenant, they thought that as long as God’s temple stood within their city they were safe. Yet this generation would not know peace because they had forsaken the God of Peace, the Lord their Righteousness.

Jeremiah wept and trembled for the agony that was to come, and the destruction of the beloved city. He grieved for these people who were so unprepared for calamity because they would not listen to his prophetic warnings. Darkness lay ahead.

Yet,even in this, despair was not the final answer. One day, beyond the cognizance of this present generation, Babylon would fall in her turn, punished for her idolatrous rapacity. Then the exiles would return, and there would be peace. And one day the Lord Himself , the branch of David, would come among them, and some would know him to be, as Isaiah had foretold, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. So he waited. And as he waited, he lifted his tear-drenched eyes and remembered afresh that God was still, even in the midst of tragedy and horror, the one who had hold of his heart, and would keep it:

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed
For His compassions never fail
They are new every morning
Great is Your faithfulness.”

In those words he found his peace.

Saturday, September 07, 2013


At least the gate was called Beautiful for a reason, and it gave him something to look at, something to look up to. He had no place in the Temple itself, he was a helpless cripple and couldn’t get up the steps, but each day his friends would carry him to his spot by the gate, and there he would beg. And (he was trying hard to be positive here) it was a good place to beg.  People went into the temple feeling guilty and seeking God’s favour; people came out of the temple feeling right with the world and at peace. Both states of mind could be great motivators for generosity. Or not.

A man who crouches there, in his beggar’s rags, by one of the busiest places in the city, and a place which attracts both rich and poor and almost all the visitors from other places, overhears more than most, and gets to feel the mood and tenor of the city as instinctively as a doctor taking a pulse. What else did he have to occupy his mind? And the mood of the city was not tranquil. Always, always, at least in his lifetime, there had been the steady chafing of the Roman presence, but it was the kind of chafing a man learns to live with and make the best of, like a rough wool cloak that irritates the skin but keeps out the biting cold. But this was a new unrest. He remembered the rumours that had flown around just before Passover, when Jesus of Nazareth had entered the city on a donkey – a gesture that meant nothing to the Romans, but sang with Messianic significance to the Israelites. Could this be the one? Could he?

But no, within less than a week they were calling for his death, and the results were enough to make a crippled beggar shudder. Crucified, dead and buried, this Jesus, and Roman order had been restored  and the Passover crowds had behaved themselves. The next rumour was slower to spread: it was whispered rather than shouted, as if no one quite knew what to do with it. But in a town like Jerusalem tales of empty tombs and overwhelmed soldiers don’t keep secret forever, and there was much muttering and nervous glancing over shoulders. And then, at Pentecost, everything changed again ..

He shifted position slightly to try to ease the constant, wearing pain, then reached out his hands in supplication as he saw two friendly-looking men approaching. Using the traditional beggar’s whine (did people realise how humiliating that was?) he wheedled for money. They neither hurried past ignoring him, or threw a stray coin at him. Instead they stopped right there, turned and looked him full in the face. Very few people ever did that – and a man notices when he is something from which men turn away their eyes. “Look at us!” said the taller one, and he gazed at them in expectation.

“I don’t have any silver or gold to give you.” He paused, and the cripple, disappointed, felt as if his very soul was being searched. But the man hadn’t finished. “I will give you what I do have, though. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”

This was not at all what he had expected, and he sat there stunned. Besides, he didn’t know how to get up and walk! But these people weren’t just empty words. A strong hand, calloused by fishing nets, reached out to him and pulled him up. Immediately his feet and ankles were strong, and his pain was gone. Tentatively, he tried walking a few steps, expecting his legs to buckle under him any second – but they didn’t! So excited, he walked, ran, leapt, dancing around in wonder like a little child, straight into the temple precincts. Many people recognised him, and were amazed at his transformation. And a new rumour, sweet as the promise of heart’s desire, ran through the streets of Jerusalem.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Return

It hadn’t been very long at all, but so much had changed. Not in the town, it was the same as ever, another typical Galilean village; no, it was his role and purpose that had changed. When he left they had known him simply as the carpenter’s son, a nice guy if a little ‘different’, who had done the right thing supporting his mother and younger brothers until the boys were old enough to assume full responsibility. In the humdrum world of daily work, the simple world of ordinary people he had simply been taken for granted, and the oddities of their family history were largely overlooked.

But now his reputation had preceded him, and he could see the questions in his former neighbours’ eyes. They were remembering how his mother was pregnant too soon, they were remembering how his whole family had disappeared down to Egypt for a while, they were remembering little ways in which he had seemed unusual as a child. The rumours had been flying all round Galilee: the deaf who could now hear, the blind who could now see, the lame and the paralysed who were walking again. Wasn’t there something a little bit strange about that? Not quite sound, not quite ... reliable? And in the sideways glances their unspoken question shouted, “Who does he think he is?”

Now he looked around at them, gathering their attention as he stood before them. Then he looked down at the scroll and began to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor ...” He read through that glorious proclamation of the freedom and healing that were God’s signs of His Messiah, then he sat down and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

He could feel their shock turning to anger, and the deep, resentful scepticism that lay behind it. Their thoughts were written clear across their hardening faces: Who did he think he was? He was a child of shame; his mother, who’d always seemed to be more pious than the rest of them, had been the very one who’d had to move her wedding forward. And what had he ever done for them? It was all very well to go round healing people in Capernaum (mere fishermen!) but what miracles had he ever done for the people of Nazareth all the time he had been with them? Didn’t they have first claim on him?

“No prophet is accepted in his hometown,” he told them. Hadn’t it always been the way? Men were contemptuous of the familiar, and resented one of their own claiming to be something more. Also, they always thought they had ownership. If they had ‘put up’ all those years (as they saw it) with someone who wasn’t quite one of them, there was an expectation that they should, at the very least, have a share in the rewards. That the prophets of God belong to God alone, go where He sends them, and give the glory to Him alone, was something they had no interest in knowing. In fact, the very idea enraged them.

His words about Elijah and Elisha only inflamed them further. How dare he! In one accord, just as a herd of wild creatures turns on one they perceive to be an outsider, they rose and drove him out of the synagogue, through the town and up towards a precipice. There was murder in their hearts, but it was not his time to die, and he slipped through their midst and departed, leaving them alone with their futile anger in a world grown mysteriously greyer.