Obscure Biblical Action Hero of the Day: Shamgar (Judges 3:31)

It was a dark time.

Robbers and theives roamed the land. Nowhere was safe; no-one in their right mind would take a main road for fear of being murdered by Israel’s enemies, and whole villages had been abandoned, their communities fleeing to walled cities that offered at least some protection from invading armies.

And then a hero steps forward.

We know nothing about him, other than his name and that of his father. Shamgar is about an obscure a Bible character as you’re ever likely to find. And yet he’s another of those characters who, through his faith in God, achieves something extraordinary.

Extraordinarily badass.

Because he takes an oxgoad and uses it to kill 600 invading Philistines. This is even more impressive when you remember that an oxgoad was basically just a long, pointy cattle prod.

Now sure, gut reaction is to write this off as a gross exageration. But it fits within a biblical tradition of a small group of fighters – or even an individual – overcoming ridiculous odds. We see it in Chronicles’ description of David’s mighty men; we see it in the story of Gideon. The constant restating of this theme throughout the Bible may just be a way of driving the point home: “I saved your ancestors, I can save you”.

So maybe that’s why the very short and obscure story of Shamgar makes the Bible – a quick history lesson, sure, but also a way of re-emphasising a theme – don’t be afraid of overwhelming odds, because God will fight on your side. The converse is also true – try to do something without God and it can lead to dismal failure.

And yet, when you’re staring down a cattle prod, surrounded by 600 bad guys, trust in God can be hard to muster. Did Shamgar ever have a moment of doubt? Did he wish that he had access to air support. We don’t know, because we’re talking about a seriously unsung hero.

Maybe that’s just as well. Maybe the just-the-facts approach is important. Yes, our trust in God and our expectations of him fighting alongside us can flag and fail at times – the situation can appear insurmountable, the crisis unsolvable. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. Yet Shamgar’s story asks us to put all that to one side and believe – believe that God will come out fighting on our behalf, believe that nothing is impossible with faith, believe that 600 Philistines can be taken down with a pointy stick.

Because God is on our side,

Pentecost: The story just got bigger (Acts 2)

20120515-074516.jpgWell, the Easter season is pretty much done and dusted. In terms of major festivals it all goes quiet until December, right?

That’s the problem with Easter – it can be seen as the end of the story, the be-all and end-all of Christianity, and after it’s celebrated in spring, we reboot and wait for Christmas, not giving an awful lot of thought to what happened after Easter. Sure, the resurrection of Christ is fundamental and central to the faith, but it’s the start of a new journey, rather than a chance to fall onto the sofa and put your feet up.

So with that, Acts chapter 2.

The first thing to note is that events among the fledgling Christian community seem to mirror the two Jewish festivals that were happening at the same time. The crucifixion and resurrection took place during Passover, the great remembrance of God liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. It’s the foundational Jewish story of rescue and freedom from oppression, death being averted by sacrifice. In that sense the crucifixion takes on huge symbolic weight – Christ as the ultimate Passover sacrifice.

But then a lesser known ritual takes place, the Counting of the Omer. Instituted in Leviticus 23:15-16. This starts after Passover and counts down towards the next major festival, Shavuot, which commemorates God giving the Law to Israel on Mount Sinai. This is the moment that a liberated people received the mission for which they were liberated in the first place. There on Mount Sinai, Israel receives its orders. In this context, I guess, the Counting of the Omer serves as a reminder that salvation isn’t something that happens, with us being briefly grateful before forgetting about it. As soon as salvation was remembered, the countdown towards the next chapter in the story begins.

So the resurrection isn’t just marked by the Ascension acting as a full stop. Jesus tells the disciples to stay in Jerusalem where they wil receive the Holy Spirit – they’re also counting down to the next part of the story, and I guess it’s easy to have sympathy for them, their confusion mixed with anticipation, the knowledge that God has a plan butting heads with the frustration that we rarely know what that plan actually is.

And so the disciples are gathered together, and they’re expecting something to happen. They’re not sure when, although I guess it’s possible they’re thinking that it’s possible things kick off during the big festivals. It’s Pentecost and the city is full of pilgrims from throughout the known world, after all, what better time for God to do something dramatic?

And then it happens – the sound of a rushing wind, flame… When the Holy Spirit arrives, everything goes crazy. The Spirit isn’t tame, no respecter of convention. Suddenly the disciples are speaking in other languages, languages they never learned, and all those pilgrims can understand what they’re saying – communication is powerfully, divinely possible. This isn’t an everyday event, so the question on everyone’s lips was “What the heck’s going on?!”

(Apart from those who figured the disciples were drunk. We’ll ignore them.)

This is a big deal. After all, look who originally fractured human language as punishment for the hubris on display at the Tower of Babel – God himself. Babel represents humanity’s arrogance, its desire to make itself like God, a comprehensive shattering of the relationship between human and the divine that started in the Garden of Eden.

And then suddenly that curse is reversed and the punishment of Babel is undone. Because the relationship between God and Man has been healed by the work of Jesus and grace triumphs over judgement. The brokenness depicted in Genesis is being fixed.

But it’s also the end of the countdown. Because now the Spirit’s here, bringing power and restoration, the church beginning in earnest. And it’s got a mission. Seven weeks ago, Peter had denied even knowing Jesus; now he’s getting up and delivering a sermon. This is something I hadn’t appreciated before – all this seems to happen in public.

See, I always had the impression that they were in a house, the Spirit comes and they go out into the streets, when actually the word used for ‘house’ could also refer to the Temple. That puts a whole different slant on this episode if that’s the case – the Temple was the earthly home of God, and yet when the Spirit comes, he doesn’t go into a specific room, he goes into people.

And so that ties into Peter’s sermon, of which one of the key elements is a quotation from the book of Joel:

“ ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy… And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

This is huge, and the book of Acts in a nutshell. Because yes, Israel has a key role in the salvation of humanity, but that role has to spread out from Israel – it can’t stay there. And so Acts tells the story of how the message of Jesus spreads from Jerusalem throughout the Roman Empire, with a whole bunch of stories illustrating how the scope of that plan just keeps getting bigger and bigger, with more and more ‘outsiders’ being brought into the fold. In that sense, Peter quoting Joel is a manifesto for the early church, even if they haven’t quite figured out what that means yet.

That’s the great message of this passage – God reaches out to everyone, not just a select group. The Holy Spirit turns up and everyone’s categories have to be rewritten, and the rest of Acts is pretty much people running to keep up with that glorious transformation. We can’t forget this, because it’s key to what the church should be – an agent of God ‘s love and salvation to all, even to – especially to – those on the margins, those who are ignored, those who are despised.

God’s love is for all.

And our maps need to be re-drawn.

What Mobile Libraries Have To Do With Pentecost and Grace (2 Corinthians 4:6-10)

20120524-141931.jpgPart of the beauty of blogging is that disorganised people like myself can get, well, organised – my post for Pentecost has been primed to go live for a couple of weeks now, and so I don’t have to worry about oversleeping on Sunday and not uploading it. Technology is wonderful.

But this is a Bible blog, and Bible blogs are never that simple. Anyone would think someone out there has a vested interest in them.

Anyway, I’ve just joined a new library, and the first book I ‘ve borrowed is The Library Book, edited by the Reading Agency. This is an anthology of writing on libraries by a number of well-known authors, but the piece that got me thinking was the forward, in which a librarian tell of her mobile library’s encounters with the homeless.

It’s moving to read of how lending a book to someone on the streets is more than just a nice public service – it’s an act of trust. After all, when your clientele is itinerant, you’re not going to get all of your books back.

And yet books were returned – kept dry when their reader himself was soaking wet, and acting as a catalyst for conversations other than homeless shelters. One man, having got back on his feet, became a librarian himself. Lending books became a humanising event, an act of grace almost. It changed people’s lives.

On Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, another act of grace, another moment when fragile, broken humans are entrusted with something that broadens their horizons, brightens their world. The gift of the Holy Spirit is given, and while there would have been times that those first disciples would have dropped the ball, God still achieved amazing things through a bunch of people written off as corrupt, or terrorists, or yokels. They became more than their stereotypes, they became what God wanted them to be, through his grace.

Paul summed it up best, I guess, with his history of persecuting the church before being confronted with his mistake. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay,” he writes in 2 Corinthians 6, “to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

Broken as we may be, God still works with us, a treasure in jars of clay, a library book in an Asda bag. And this act of grace can lead to transformation, if we accept it. It’s given freely, a thing of beauty.

Even to people like us.

PS. It’s a ‘coincidence’, but not an unwelcome one, that today, over at my other blog, I also talk about grace. But in a totally different context…

The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

So one day an expert in the Jewish law asks Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. This is a question that Jesus keeps getting asked by people with ulterior motives, and so this time it leads to one of the most famous stories in the Bible. But because The Good Samaritan is such a well-known parable, it probably doesn’t hurt to revisit it…

To recap: a lone traveller is walking down the treacherous, dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho when he’s attacked by robbers. Left for dead, a priest and then a Levite walk past him without offering any help. Then along comes a Samaritan who saves the guy’s life. The moral we normally take from this is that the most unexpected one of the three is the one who everyone thought would turn out to be the bad guy, and therefore we should show love even to those we’d consider enemies. And that’s a legitimate way to approach life, but there’s more going on behind the scenes of this story.

For a start, we immediately consider it to represent a conflict between two groups who loathed each other – it’s fair to say that Jews and Samaritans hated each others’ guts. But here’s the thing – where does it say that the traveller was Jewish?

It doesn’t. For all we know, the traveller could have been a Samaritan himself. Or Roman. Or Inuit. We don’t know – he was left unconscious and stripped of his clothing, so there’s no external way of knowing anything about him. Sure, we assume he was Jewish, but this is a story where it’s dangerous to assume anything. Effectively, Jesus leaves us with a blank slate onto which we can project our assumptions and prejudices, because he’s waiting to pull the rug from under us.

So along comes a priest. And of course we all expect the priest to help the man, but instead he passes by on the other side. Why does he do this?

Well, it’s possible he’s on his way home with his share of the sacred offering that had been given at the Temple. This was his meal, the guy needs to eat. Fair enough, but Leviticus 22 has a bunch of rules he had to observe first – after all, this isn’t a Happy Meal. One of the rules is that he can’t eat the offering if he’s been made unclean by coming into contact with a corpse or bodily fluids.

And so we can probably expect the poor traveller to be bleeding. The priest may be making yet another of the story’s assumptions by figuring that the traveller was already dead. He makes a snap decision – I’m not going to help, because I’ll end up making myself unclean and I’ll go hungry tonight. And, to a degree, that’s a legitimate call to make under the law of Leviticus.

(Remember who Jesus was telling this story to, by the way.)

But wait – the priest isn’t really in a position to do this. Because Leviticus 19 includes other laws such as “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life” and “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” So which law takes priority? Given the emphasis on compassion throughout the Bible, I’d imagine that the priest’s attitude was holding to the letter of some specific laws whilst ignoring its overall spirit. And maybe this was a case of Jesus using a fictional character to reflect the expert in the law’s attitude back at him. After all, the next character to walk along the road was a Levite, leading to similar questions.

And so the Samaritan comes along and helps the traveller – extravagantly so. “Who was a neighbour to that poor traveller?” Jesus asks the expert in the law. “The one who helped him,” comes the reluctant reply. Because here’s the thing, this expert in the law has to admit that the spirit of God’s law is embodied more effectively by a hated Samaritan than it is…

Than it is the expert in the law himself.

After all, this is a parable, a story, the priest and the Levite are just useful stereotypes. It’s not an attack on the Temple or the Law, it’s an attack on the expert’s attempt to find a loophole, to limit his obligations to his fellow human beings. Sure, the law expects respect for religious practice, but it also demands compassion for those in need. The expert wanted to inherit great things with a minimum of effort – Jesus wouldn’t allow him that option.

And so yes, the Good Samaritan is about showing compassion for all, even those we we’d consider enemies. But it’s even more challenging than that – it’s about the ways in which we seek to avoid showing God’s love because it’s difficult or offends our sensibilities or because it’s too costly. This is one of the most famous stories in the Bible, yes, and there’s a good reason for that; it’s one of the most important.



Ascension Day (Acts1:1-11)

20120517-085323.jpgThe Ascension always strikes me as an odd story, not because Jesus returned to heaven, but because of how he does it. I mean, it’s a strange image, Jesus levitating into the sky while the disciples watch. I’m not sure I have any great insight to share, but a couple of thoughts struck me when rereading the passage today…

The first is that there seems to be references to other passages coded into this story of Jesus saying goodbye to the disciples. After all, another major figure was taken up to heaven while his protege watched – Elijah was snatched away by a chariot of fire, which is perhaps significant because references to Elijah keep cropping up throughout the ministry of Jesus.

The interesting thing is that Elijah’s being taken to heaven is as much a rite of passage for his successor, Elisha, who was primed to take over the mission. Which is pretty much the case for the disciples, who’ve been told to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit.

(It’s also notable that, while Elijah goes to heaven in a chariot of fire, Jesus goes under his own steam. He goes home himself, not waiting to be collected, which perhaps says something about relative power levels…)

And, like the disciples, a group of Elijah’s friends spend a lot of time looking for him rather than getting on with things. In that case it’s Elisha who tells them it’s futile; here it’s two men in white.

And where have two men in white cropped up before? At the empty tomb of Jesus forty days earlier, where they asked why Jesus’s followers are looking for the living amongst the dead. I like to think it’s the same guys here: “Okay, now why are you looking into the sky?!” Jesus has moved on. You’ve got to do the same.

Then there’s the cloud. Clouds symbolise God’s presence – like at the Transfiguration, or when the Ten Commandments were given to Israel. Here it’s important to note that, while Jesus has gone, God’s power is still active. That’s going to become clearer at Pentecost, but the idea is here too.

And that’s the message of Ascension Day – not so much a full stop, but a passing of the baton. From Jesus to the Holy Spirit, from Jesus to the church. It’s a reminder that God will be with us always, and even though things may change dramatically, he’s still there.