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.