Sunday, 24 February 2013

Cleaning house

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; 16 and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken. (NASB)

I've taken a while to get to this passage as I've struggled to try and keep away with overly technical issues. This blog is about trying to be devotional, or at least exegetical to think about Scripture and life, and not just the academy. This account of Jesus clearing the temple is in Mark 11, Luke 19, Matthew 21 and is clearly set in Jesus' final week, following his acclamation is Messiah (king) by the pilgrim crowds. John clearly wants us to think about this at the start of Jesus' ministry and I think it unlikely that there were two clearings. John is doing what Tarantino does in some of his movies, not always presenting things in chronological order even though he is still doing history.

Like the turning water into wine, this is all about a changing of the guard - from practices actually commanded or based upon those to practices that won't divide Jew and the rest of the world, and will do the job properly as it were. So ceremonial washing as alluded to in the wedding sign don't make ceremonially clean for all time. Likewise, sacrifices in the temple don't deal with human sin and evil for all time. Hence, the stopping of trading in sacrifices is a statement about the greater sacrifice for sin present in Jesus. And the comments about the money changers seems to relate to an abuse of the whole system - perhaps in the way in which pilgrims were ripped off for profit where they should have been allowed to do their religious duty by making sacrifices to God free from extortion.

The other aspect of course is that as in the opening passage, Jesus is God who pitches his tent amongst his people, and hence as the presence of God among his people he is the true temple. His authority is of one who is God, not merely one who speaks for God. This is what makes Christianity unique.

What this passage makes clear is that if Jesus' claims are meant to be taken seriously, he needs to have risen from the dead. Otherwise, he's another (if not strange and non-violent) first century Jewish revolutionary proclaiming a renewed Israel. The fact that he is crucified as a false pretender marks his rejection by the politico-religious elite and typically harsh treatment by the dominant empire of the day. The resurrection shows they were both wrong, and that we too if we put our religious, political or personal agendas above those of God, are also wrong. Having said that, if we read this whole thing purely in 'religious' terms, and don't see that the resurrection is world transforming, including empire challenging - our gospel is too small.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Love is like a butterfly

2:1-11  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; and both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it." Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water." So they filled them up to the brim. And He said to them, "Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter." So they took it to him. When the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom, and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now." This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him. (NASB)

There is an 80s comedy (sometimes not so funny - more poignant, but I'm digressing already) called Butterflies. It is about a woman in a staid marriage who can never quite bring herself to become adulterously involved with another man. The title of this post is taken from the title song, but the post has nothing else to do with the show.

But I often think of this song when I think of butterflies (the woman's husband collected them as I do). Butterflies are very attractive invertebrates who start life upon hatching as caterpillars, which some people don't find at all attractive (they are after all, a mouth, an anus, a gut and legs for carrying about said eating/defecating apparatus). Now the normal cycle of butterflies and a good many other insects is to go through a total metamorphosis into something new, from caterpillar to butterfly. Now imagine if this doesn't happen? Some larvae get parasitised by wasps and never hatch. But no caterpillar decides to stay that way.

Israel were called to be God's people and a light to the other nations. There were things that marked them apart, like ritual washing. There were a lot of rules for washing, especially for priests. Purity was very important, and there was less of a distinction between sin and ritual purity that we might think of these days. This was God ordained, and people were to take this seriously, for it said much about the holy nature of God, and the less than holy nature of people. Of course these days what might have made us unclean back then now is simply a matter of hygiene. What was done then certainly marked Jews apart from others.

The key to understanding the taking of stone pots used for ritual washing and making wine in them is that in Jesus, purity is now a matter just of the heart and his atoning for sin. The outward signs were useful and God appointed in their time (and yes some by the tradition of the elders), but if something is a stage through which one passes, one doesn't linger any longer than necessary. You don't get to your holiday destination and then spend your holiday on the plane; the caterpillar is meant to become the butterfly.

So Jesus makes a great feasting, echoing parables of the great end times feast because in him, the husband of Israel spoken of in Hosea 2 is the bridegroom in Mark 2; Jesus. He celebrates with the whole village a wedding, but knows a greater wedding feast is now shown preemptively in his sign of turning water into wine (I now have Salisbury Hill by Peter Gabriel running through my head - listen to the lyrics and you'll know why).

We then want to avoid the creeping scepticism that says water can't be turned into wine - that's giving up on the idea of a God who can act before we start. And when we realize the Father of the Bride (another cultural reference, get it?) was providing for extended families and the whole village, would have started saving wine when his daughter was born and would have been publicly embarrassed by the wine running out, we can avoid the other end of things that insists Jesus didn't create alcoholic wine. He wasn't encouraging drunkenness but celebration. It matters this miracle (sorry sign) happened and it matters it was real wine.

So what for us? It would be too quick to jump to me and Jesus with something pithy about inner transformation, but it's very true that sinners are turned into saints by Jesus (while still being sinners, with thanks to Martin Luther). Jesus came so that we could be pure, from the inside out. Ritual can always illustrate, enlighten or help to deepen this, but without the transforming work of Jesus through the Spirit, purity is an illusion - the days of the division between Jew and Gentile is gone. Our purity can't be based upon our own efforts or association with religious traditions - else it becomes something designed to divide. Yet we become part of a community of those being made pure. And I'm thankful especially with the brothers I meet with weekly who help with and remind me of that.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Being worthily unworthy

19  This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" 20  And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ." 21  They asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" And he answered, "No." 22  Then they said to him, "Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?" 23  He said, "I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, 'MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,' as Isaiah the prophet said." 24  Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25  They asked him, and said to him, "Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" 26  John answered them saying, "I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. 27  "It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." 28  These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 

I feel sorry in some ways for preachers who have large churches. I like to listen to podcasts of some preachers with multi-campus churches. I'm often reminded of the following joke:

'A surgeon rocks up to the pearly gates of heaven and demands to be let in instantly, because there's a long queue of people waiting to get into heaven. He proceeds to tell St Peter that he is a world famous surgeon and about all the famous people he's cared for. Then, as he is arguing, he sees another surgeon walk past and through the gates. Before he can protest, Peter says to him "Oh that's God, he just thinks he's a surgeon"'.

The point is, that people in large ministries (and indeed large in their own mind) can fall prey to thinking they are God. And how can you blame them when lots of people can treat them that way? Praise and adulation can trick us into thinking all sorts of things - none of us is exempt.

John the Baptiser had a very successful ministry down by the Jordan, with many coming to him for baptism. Yet when questioned he was very clear that he was but a signpost, someone preparing the way for God himself (that Jesus followed shows us who he was). What is more, John knew compared to Jesus he was nothing - not even the lowest of slaves to untie the sandals off his dirty feet. He knew he was a slave, a servant of God. He knew his place and was happy about it.

Now if we took this attitude of comparison to another person, this would be an issue. While the bible isn't a book on self esteem, it does have a realistic view of humans and it is often positive - after all if Jesus became one to reconcile us to God, what more recommendation do you need. But John isn't comparing himself to a mere human, but to God.

So as we seek to be involved in mission, be it as preachers to hundreds and thousands, confidants to a few, scholars to academic communities or parents to our kids, remember: we are not God. Thank God! Confess that freely to all and point all to the God man Jesus.