Advent 2015 1: Breaking the Bow (Zechariah 9:9-10)


Advent begins in a strange sort of way, a timey-wimey journey towards Christmas that we start at the end. We anticipate the coming of the baby in the manager by flashing-forward to the fully grown Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey. I guess there’s a symbolic moment here; two moments of hope as the Saviour twice comes to town, once to the stable, once to the cross.

Hope’s important here. The Triumphal Entry riffs on a prophecy from Zechariah 9:9-10, a vision of the coming of the Messiah:

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
    and the warhorses from Jerusalem,
    and the battle bow will be broken.

It’s promising an end to war. Of course, that’s an eschatological hope right there, as there’s no shortage of war at the moment. It’s standard operating practice for humanity – power is defined by how big your arsenal is, and so every problem begins to look like a target on some drone’s control screen.

But when Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem, this is the moment he’s embodying. He’s not coming as a conquerer, he’s not even coming to fight. His confrontation with the local superpower gets him crucified. The battle bows remain unbroken. Heck, two thousand years later they’re powered by uranium.

But we live on the other side of this, the other side of the empty tomb. And as naive and impractical as that feels sometimes, we have to respond like that means something.

That’s hard, because we live in a world where might makes right and where invasion plans don’t seem to stretch past bombing everyone and leaving it to God to sort them out.

And yet the whole point of Advent is taking time out to reflect on that hope, to figure what it means to live in the tension between God’s kingdom and the other empires that surround us. We need to hear Zechariah’s prophecy again, and look towards the moment of resurrection that makes it all possible.

So maybe, on this Advent Sunday, thre’s an oportuniy to pause and reflect – on what it means to follow the Prince of Peace in a world of way, on how we live in a resurrection kingdom that’s hidden amongst empires. And may we let this reflection transform us as we start down the road towards Bethlehem.

The War on Advent

There has been talk, in recent years, of a war on Christmas. I don’t take much notice of this – Christmas is still a big deal, at least in the UK where you can watch a 24 hour Christmas movie channel and where the fairy lights are the main cause of climate change. But over the last few weeks I’ve heard other whispers. Whispers about the War on Advent.

Advent is the start of the liturgical year, but the ecclesiastical calendar plays a clever trick. It doesn’t dive straight into Christmas, it sets up four weeks of preparation and anticipation. And that’s the problem.

We don’t do anticipation any more. Our preparation begins with Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but they’re not about preparing for the 25th, they’re about getting a bargain now, an early Christmas present because hey, who wants to wait?

We race into things. We don’t stop. We react. We don’t think.

Advent’s one of those pauses built into the year. We’re supposed to ease into Christmas, to think about what this season means, to consider the implications of God incarnate, of Jesus’s teachings and example. What actually happens is that we finish work at the last minute, rush around like headless turkeys and argue about the quality of roast potatoes.

Never mind spiritual preparation, Advent’s about buying stuff. And it doesn’t kick off with Advent Sunday, it starts with Black Friday.

If we’re going to reclaim our identity as something more than consumers and work units, we have to recognise what’s happening with the calendar. We have to recapture a rhythm of life. We don’t work to the harvest any more, so what do we work to? I have some ideas, but they’re not particularly edifying and besides, that’s more of an individual question: when do you get to stop? When do you get to rest? When do you stop giving and consuming and just start receiving something deeper and more satisfying? Even the church is complicit in this, and if you don’t believe me, ask yourself how much running around you’re going to be doing over the next few weeks and how much of that is down to making sure a hundred and one special services run smoothly?

Advent’s now just a way of measuring how many shopping days are left to Christmas, and that to me is the real war. It’s a war on our souls, our spirits, our relationships. Keep working, keep spending, don’t stop… That’s never going to create healthy communities, healthy families, healthy lives.


How do we fight back?

The Prodigal Son: Why isn’t his brother invited to the party? (Luke 15:25-32)

rembrant-prodigal-son-detailThis post has no answers. I’ll admit that now, because that’s a part of the Parable of the Prodigal Son that bothers me. It bothers me because it messes with the traditional interpretation and I don’t know what to do with that.

So the Prodigal Son returns home and his dad, instead of tearing him a new one, throws a lavish welcome home party. The elder brother, who’s always been the dutiful son and has always kept the rule, is angry at this, refusing to go into the celebrations. Because of this he’s treated as an ungrateful, resentful legalist with a stick up his butt. Who’s knows, maybe that’s the idea. Certainly that’s what I learned when I was growing up: God’s the father, the Prodigal represents ‘sinners’ and the eldest son is a metaphor for unforgiving religious types. Easy.

But one day I read verse 25 and something lit up and now it messes with me every time I hear this story.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house he heard music and dancing.” Okay, what does that tell us?

The eldest son wasn’t invited to the party.

Look, the party’s already in full swing. There’s been enough time to round up a band and get some guests together. The next verse shows us that the fattened calf has been killed and cooked, and we know that because at least one of the servants knew what was going on. A fair bit of time has passed since the Prodigal got back.

No-one told his brother.

The servant explains what’s going on, but he has to be summoned so it’s not like he was  already on his way out to the field to round up the family. The eldest son is out of the loop and hasn’t been invited.

So of course he refuses to go in. Of course he’s angry. Of course there’s a tense conversation with his father.

It’s hard not to get the impression that this is a messed up family. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends!”

Is this true? Did the eldest son ever actually ask? Was he not invited because, let’s be pragmatic here, it’s not always easy for farmers to drop everything and party? Did the father ever directly refuse to give him a goat? In the next verse the father says “Everything I have is yours,” but his eldest son doesn’t seem to believe it. “You are always with me,” the father says, but he forgot to invite his eldest son to his brother’s homecoming, the biggest party the family had thrown for years.

Maybe I bring too many issues to this, but something doesn’t seem right. This exchange, with its tensions and undercurrents, makes the parable more complicated, more difficult. Jesus often told stories in which the God substitute was a little unflattering, but this almost seems to be lampshaded. I still tend to lean towards the traditional interpretation, because I love grace and stories of grace, but I can’t help but think I’mm missing something here.

And why not? The Bible’s a complicated book. It contains allusions and imagery and debates and arguments. Some of its metaphors are messy and we have to wrestle with that. We need to engage with its ideas and in doing so engage with God. I think that’s what Jesus the storyteller would want.

A Kingdom for a Different World (John 18:36)

Christ%20before%20Pilot%2018_5%20x13cms;%20oil(This was inspired by a comment from Pulpit Fiction, a weekly lectionary podcast well worth checking out if you’re a bit of a Bible geek.)

Jesus stands before Pilate, a prisoner facing a show trial. The whole sorry situation revolves around power – who’s in charge, who’s popular, who’s the political alpha dog.

Who’s king.

Our gut instinct is to say Jesus, and that’s the right answer, but here he stands, a captive in someone else’s palace, facing the official representative of the world’s great superpower. Priests have brought him here and Caesar’s lackey stands judgement over him and the crowds have abandoned him. As kingdoms go, things aren’t looking good.

We talk a lot about context – about the Jerusalem priesthood, about the history of Pilate, about radical movements in first century Palestine. But call me radical, but it doesn’t matter that we’re talking here about Jewish leaders and Roman leaders. Really this is about the empires people establish – political, martial, ecclesiastical – and how they ultimately end up crashing into the kingdom of God.

Jesus is well aware of this. He knows where his journey’s been heading and it’s not to a jewel-encrusted throne. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

That’s the thing. His servants were willing to fight, or at least Peter was when he took off the ear of Malchus. Maybe that’s why Peter ends up denying him; after watching Jesus heal the high priest’s servant, maybe all the expectations of what was about to happen came crashing down. Heal the sick, sure, but don’t heal your enemies because they’ll… Well, they’ll come back and crucify you.

Of course, they’ll come back and crucify you anyway. In 66AD, Jerusalem rose up against Rome and it was horrific, slaughter and cannibalism and a burning Temple. Jesus had already prophesied this, but it fell on deaf ears. Of course it did – we don’t like it when people talk of different kingdoms, we resent the idea that any empire can be better than our own. Anyone who says otherwise is a traitor, a hater, who probably wants to burn the flag mock the queen.

“My kingdom is not of this world.” That’s true, but in beautiful times and spaces it intrudes into our brokenness and corruption, daisies growing in pavement cracks. It invades every time we take Jesus seriously, besieges empires when we welcome immigrants rather than talk of building walls and locking them in camps, when we help the poor rather than spit in their faces. That’s how Christ’s servants fight, not to prevent the crucifixion but to live out the resurrection, to acknowledge that Jesus is now on the throne and to live in that reality, not in the shadows of transitory empires.

But it’s difficult to stay loyal to a kingdom that often seems hidden. Sometime that loyalty is hard-won, sometimes worship has to be an act of defiance, sometimes getting up and singing praise to the Lord is actually a cry of lament and desperation in the face of death, of war, of bloodshed and terror and hatred. We sing, and even if the words feel like ashes in our mouths, even if the music sounds discordant with the world bleeding around us, we keep on singing, keep on praising, because in doing so we proclaim a better world and a greater kingdom, we raise up our king and praise his name, and even though the world in which we live is upside-down and back-to-front, even though the Kingdom of God is now-and-not-yet, the Lamb is still seated on the throne; we take our sin and our fear and our futures and lay them before the throne, before the cross and leave them there in the hands of our Saviour and our King.

The Law of Unforeseen Circumstances: Joseph, Pharaoh and Bad Decisions (Genesis 47:13-26)

Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothersSo Joseph, the guy with the technicolour dreamcoat, has become right-hand man to the Pharoah. He’s been through slavery, imprisonment, false accusations and estrangement from his screwed up family, but now he’s the second most powerful man in the kingdom.

It’s not plain sailing, even at this point. There’s famine in the region, but thanks to his gift of prophetic dreams, Joseph has seen this coming. So he uses a seven year window to store up grain so that there’ll be surplus when the famine hits. Perfectly sensible plan.

Unfortunately, this is where things start to go wrong.

In a humane world, famine relief would be distributed fairly. But Joseph doesn’t live in a particularly humane world, so when the starving Egyptians come to him for help, he gets them to buy grain.

But then, when the money’s gone, and the people are still starving, Joseph takes their land in exchange for more grain.

And then, when Joseph’s passed all that land to Pharaoh, and the famine is still raging, Joseph takes the people’s labour in exchange for food. Sounds a bit like slavery.

And with all this he’s consolidating Pharaoh’s power and making sure a despot remains on the throne.

The story of Joseph is a much-loved Sunday School lesson – after all, kids enjoy colouring in his coat. But we never take about this bit, the bit where the hero of the story exploits a starving population to make money for his boss. And yes, in doing so Joseph saves the lives of his family, who also settle in Egypt, but did that really require the rest of the population being forced into servitude?

The story doesn’t end here, of course; flick forward a few pages and we’re in the Book of Exodus and the Israelites have become too numerous for the new Pharaoh, so he takes the matter into hand and puts those Israelites into slavery.

Now, this is the context of Israel’s big biblical story – liberation from Egypt, God busting them out of slavery. It’s baked deep into the scriptures. And yet one of the patriarchs helped get them into that mess in the first place. It’s hard to know what to do with this – the Bible has a habit of presenting its heroes with feet of clay (or, as Homer Simpson once said “Talk about a preachy book! Everyone’s a sinner…Except this guy…”), but that really pulls the rug from under the average Sunday School curriculum.

But there’s an eternal lesson here. Actions have consequences, often unforeseen. What seems to be a smart, pragmatic plan at the time can turn out to have awful ramifications. Bad things happen as the result of the best of intentions; when you’re trying to prop up a despot, REALLY bad things can happen. And generations further down the line have to deal with the mess.

But of course, the Bible is an ancient book, and couldn’t possibly have relevance for how we approach geopolitics today.