Reflection on John 2.1-12

How does God communicate with us? How does God move us towards the divine will in any particular moment? Of course, there are many ways God may speak, from the pages of the Bible to a heavenly vision in prayer. But here in John chapter two the will of God is expressed using the guidance of other people. When Jesus and the disciples are receiving the blessing of hospitality at a wedding in Cana, the mother of Jesus is used as a vessel to articulate the divine will for Jesus to enact the kingdom of God where blessings given or received can ‘bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold’ (Mark 4.20).

The Gospel of John begins by stating that the Word – that we are surely supposed to understand as Christ – has existed since the very beginning with God but also, as God. This Word became flesh in the person of Jesus, announced in John 1: ‘the lamb of God’ (1.36) and ‘the Son of God’ (1.49). And throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is revealed in his humanity and divinity; that is, he forms part of the essential relationship existing between the three persons-one God we call the Trinity. It is important to briefly remind ourselves of Jesus’ divine status as understood in the Gospel of John to provide a rock upon which we may stand whilst exploring some interesting elements of the wedding at Cana in John 2.

A wedding is taking place. ‘The mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding’ (John 2.1-2). It interests me how the mother is mentioned first, suggesting a crucial role in the story, and yet we often go immediately to Jesus’ presence at the celebrations… only then remembering that his mother was there as well! When the wine has run out, Jesus’ mother says plainly to her son: ‘they have no wine’ (2.3), presumably recognising that something must be done about it. And, ignoring his cryptic comment, ‘my hour has not yet come’ (2.4), she says to the servants, ‘do whatever he tells you’ (2.5). We know the rest of the story: the jars are filled with water, a cup is taken to the chief steward, who tastes it and says to the bridegroom, ‘you’ve saved the best wine until last!’ Jesus reveals his glory through the first of the signs told us by John.

Recall the initial words of Jesus: ‘What concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come’ (2.4). Given such a response, God, in that moment, uses another person – Jesus’ mother – to guide Jesus towards the divine will. Now of course, Jesus lives in accordance to the divine will, showing obedience even to death (Philippians 2.5-11). Of that there is no question. The Gospel of Luke, for instance, shows ‘the power of the Spirit’ leading Jesus into the wilderness to be tested and into Galilee to begin his ministry (e.g. 4.1; 4.14). In John 4.4, Jesus ‘had to go through Samaria’. Geographically speaking, other routes were available but the divine purpose for what would take place in Samaria meant that, in obedience, Jesus had to go by that road.

Sometimes however when reading the Gospels, we really get the sense of Jesus feeling his way forward. Almost as though, at times the divine purpose is unexpected, even for the Christ. Examples are found in Matthew 21 with the Canaanite woman and her daughter, and perhaps also Mark 10.17-22, the rich young ruler. In these texts the most life-giving response is worked out gradually as Jesus interacts with the people involved.

I find a similar gradual revelation here in John 2. Jesus does not (initially) see what his mother sees. Perhaps, the experience of being visited by the angel Gabriel, of saying ‘yes’ to the divine will (Luke 1.26-38), not to mention the things from Jesus’ youth that Luke tells us Mary treasured in her heart (Luke 2.51), shaped her into someone who could recognise the activity of the Spirit in similar ways to other devout characters in the Bible. And in this instance, such insight was necessary for God’s will to be carried out by Jesus. God uses the mother to instruct the son. In any case, this is a biblical idea:

Hear, my child, your father’s instruction,
and do not reject your mother’s teaching (Proverbs 1.8)

Speaking generally, the wisdom of others, our elders, more experienced in the highs and lows of a life following God (or even just more experienced in life!), will often be of great help to us. But sometimes, when it is needed, the will of God for a certain instance can be articulated through any person. In that moment, we know that we have heard words that have been ignited by the divine Spirit and we must act. Even Jesus at the wedding must act in accordance to the divinely-inspired words spoken to him by Mary, his mother.

As already established, it is clear in the Gospels that the Son is constantly being shown the way by the one he calls Father. It is also to be affirmed again that Jesus is the Word made flesh who exists within the Trinity. Because it is a relationship between three persons that makes up the unity we call God, it is not surprising that the divine will for humanity is also expressed through relationship involving different people and God at different times. So, what I have seen here with Jesus at the wedding of Cana is something that is true for all believers:

Coming to know the divine will day by day – understanding exactly how we are to live as Christians – is a relational process that, given the particular circumstances we find ourselves in, might be revealed instantly, dramatically, or gradually in any number of ways.

An audio version of this reflection is available here:

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Reflection on the Baptism of Jesus in Luke 3.21-22

The baptism of Jesus shows the Son of God being commissioned to begin his ministry inviting people to repent as the kingdom of God is near. In my view, Luke’s record of the baptism also invites us to repent – or rethink – about our views of God.

In Luke 3.21 we read: ‘When all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised and was praying, the heaven was opened…’

Elsewhere in the Bible, a phrase like ‘the heaven was opened’ signals a powerful display of divine presence with flashing light, the thunderous voice of God, and prophetic visions (see for example Ezekiel 1; Psalm 18; Job 37; Exodus 19). But here at the baptism of Jesus there seems to be a subverting of what we might expect from the heaven being opened. It is almost as though Luke uses that phrase to put a certain powerful idea in our minds, to prepare us for the dynamic entrance of God into the story, before immediately turning it on its head. This, I think, is intended to make us consider over and again how we might experience divinity with and in us in ways diverse and unexpected. This is not to say that God has changed with the coming of Jesus, but rather, his coming enables us to change how we might view God.

Here, I would like to reflect upon two elements of the baptism account in Luke. First the words:

You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased

Instead of flashing light, visions and a divine voice like thunder, here are divine words of affirmation spoken over Jesus as he prepares to go, first into the wilderness, and then into his ministry. Knowing what he was being sent to accomplish, this is surely of significant assurance to Jesus. With no mention of a thunderous divine voice as we might have expected, the power is found in the words themselves rather than in the delivery!

These words have formed a central part of Christian understanding of both the person of Jesus and Christian believers in relation to God. Indeed, Henri Nouwen* based a large part of his pastoral theology upon the basis of Christians coming to understand their status as ‘the beloved’, and then acting upon the magnitude of such a realisation. For Nouwen, to come to a full appreciation of being the beloved of God, is to diminish fear and jealousy and violence. In fact, it is to diminish all negative attributes of the human character. We would have no need of these harmful things if we lived safely in the knowledge that we were the beloved children of a heavenly parent. Crucially, this would cause the many barriers that hinder our loving others, to come crashing down. A secure child, knowing the love of their parent, simply has no need to obstruct or wound others.

Such insight has additional power because it comes from a place of truth purchased by years of personal struggle and searching. It was not an easy task for Nouwen to accept or embrace his status as the beloved, nor is it easy for us either. Not really. Not for me anyway because I am too weak or proud or self-sufficient or, well, you can fill-in-the-blank. And this recognition reveals that the great power of the divine words of affirmation spoken over Jesus (and us) comes with a substantial challenge.

If these words were truly accepted, what might be the implications for us and for those around us? We can assume that Jesus truly accepted what was spoken over him, and the implications for him are momentous. Think of the way he lived in love and service showing obedience to the Father’s will even to the point of death (e.g. Philippians 2.5-11). This is because he lived so securely in the love of his heavenly parent, he could even say, ‘the Father and I are one’ (John 10.30). Thus, there is power in the affirmation. There is power in the invitation to trust in the perfect love of our divine parent. And there is power in the challenge: what might happen if we really accept these words: You are my child, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

Next, I would like to consider:

The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove

Like our expectations about the divine voice coming like thunder when the heaven was opened, we might imagine something spectacular from the arrival of the Holy Spirit – a display of great strength or a rushing wind perhaps. Instead, the Spirit comes as a dove.

The dove has a rich biblical heritage, often linked with humility, mourning and purity. And so, thinking about the situation of God’s people at the time of Jesus’ baptism, ruled by both Romans and the relations of King Herod (Luke 3.1-2), the coming of the Spirit as a dove seems appropriate. The people had indeed been humbled and were praying for deliverance (e.g. Mary’s song in Luke 1.48-55). The dove then, comes as a sign of the mourning of God’s people in times of trouble. It comes as a sign of the humility of God’s people and of God’s anointed servant who was at that moment among them being baptised. It comes also as a sign of the love of parent to child, the beloved, and by implication to all the ‘beloveds’. And it comes as a sign of the divine peace enacted through Jesus who said, ‘peace I leave with you, my peace I give you’ (John 14.27).

Here is the subversive power of the dove symbol: out of humility and lament comes victory. It is because Jesus humbled himself that he has been ultimately exalted to the right hand of God (Philippians 2.8-9). It is the slaughtered lamb who is to be honoured and praised (Revelation 5.12). The way of peace, of non-resistance, that led to the cross, is the way through which God’s reign spreads across the world. To be a peacemaker and not resist an enemy but love them, is a demonstration of incredible power but of great difficulty to achieve. Impossible perhaps without the descending of the Holy Spirit upon us.

And so, I find immense power in the imagery of Jesus’ baptism, but not perhaps, in the way that we might expect. I think that Luke sets us up purposely to assume there will be a fiery display of divine power when really the power is in the affirming words of parental love spoken over Jesus partnered with the deep symbol of a dove as humility, lament and love. To even begin to understand the real power of such things we must ask, seek and knock just like the persistent neighbour who does not give up (Luke 11.5-10). Let us not rely on what is in plain sight – thunderous voices and obvious displays of power – but instead continue searching for how we are to understand and enact the life of humility, love and peace that Jesus modelled for us and God desires for us.

For an audio version of this reflection:

 

 

*You might like to read some of Henri Nouwen’s work. A great place to start is his The Return of the Prodigal Son: a Story of Homecoming, but really any of his (many) books are excellent, affirming and challenging.

Epiphany Reflection for January 6th

I am forever fascinated by the wise men of Matthew 2. Their surprise entry into the nativity story bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh has secured them an eternal place in Christian discourse and the cultural imagination of Christmas cards and school nativity plays. The most appealing and intriguing side to the wise men for me, is that they are seekers. From the east, the wise men follow a star in search of something significant. But what? A king? The meaning of life? Nothing is known about these men other than they search, and when initially arriving in the wrong place (Jerusalem), they take further direction towards Bethlehem and continue searching until they finally find what they had been looking for, and worship before him (Matthew 2.11).

I find this inspiring as the biblical witness is so keen on presenting one’s experience with God as a kind of active journey of discovery: ‘You will seek the LORD and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul’ (Deuteronomy 4.29); ‘Ask and it will be given to you. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Seek and you will find’ (Matthew 7.7).

It is significant too that these wise men are exotic foreigners from the east. This is an important clue early in the Gospel that, with the coming of Jesus, there is the possibility of salvation for those outside of the Israelite community. In Matthew 2, the wise men may be contrasted to another outsider – Herod, who is presented as a kind of foolish foreign ruler like others in the Bible (Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, Ahasuerus). Unlike Herod who is unable to adapt to the coming of the new king called Jesus and reacts violently to the perceived threat to his power (Matthew 2.16), the wise men are shown positively as people on a journey towards something previously unknown. They are searching.

As foreigners journeying towards some form of truth, I think that Matthew presents the wise men as an example for the people of God to follow. And, following this line of thought, it might just be that we can learn something about seeking from those outside of our own Christian faith.

As such, I would like to introduce the ancient Jewish practice of midrash into this Christian reflection. Midrash involves a deep searching of the scriptures to create fresh meaning for the current age. The ancient rabbis’ strong belief in the eternal and meaningful nature of divinely-inspired scripture led them to search every word and how it was used or spelled across different sections of the Bible. They made endless connections between biblical characters and events, always with a view to answering the question ‘how do we know from scripture that God is still with us today?’ In dark times when God seemed hidden from the people’s experience, scripture provided crucial ways of demonstrating how the divine presence had been and continued to be with the people. Essentially, midrash seeks to close the gap between an ancient text and the current time, incorporating each new generation into one continuous divine story.

While not suggesting that everyone become some sort of midrash scholar, I do find the approach incredibly refreshing as it recognises that the experience of faith by necessity involves searching. Why? Because real life experience tells us that God’s presence is not always clearly felt. There are times when we feel the divine presence with us and that is a wonderful thing, but between those mountaintop experiences seem to come many days… months… years where God is hard to find. In such times there is relief in acknowledging that faith is an exercise in seeking. Somehow, it is reassuring to consider God, in a sort of divine mystery, does not leave us, but may at times withdraw or ‘hide God’s face’ to lead us forwards in search of a deeper relationship (e.g. Isaiah 8.17; 45.15; Psalm 13.1; 51.9). As Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich observed: ‘It pleases God a great deal if the soul never ceases to search’. And what better place to search than the scriptures where the intricacies of the relationship between God and humanity are expressed in poetry and prose over many pages and many hundreds of years in numerous countries. What a help this could be to us as we seek God during times of experiencing both divine presence and perceived absence!

Seeking God in scripture is not a case of finding a verse that reassures us (The LORD is my shepherd… Psalm 23.1) or tells us not to do something (Don’t eat shellfish…Lev. 11.12). The search is not quick or easy in this way because it involves our very real life experiences that may require significant time and effort to fathom. Also, we are not seeking words… but the Word. We are not hoping to find out about God but to find God. We are not interested in historical events and ancient poetry for their own sakes (as interesting as such things may be) but in discovering how such ancient wisdom will assist our contemporary experience. We want to meet God as we read and we want God to meet us through the words. Just like the ancient Jewish rabbis, our hope is surely to join in with the ancient ongoing story.

And so, remembering the wise men for a moment. Their search for God in the form of the baby Jesus was long and took them out of their country. It involved wrong turns (such as the visit to Herod) and presumably took a great deal of effort. Further, the wise men followed the star: one light leading towards another, the true light that had come into the world enlightening everyone (John 1.9). Our own journeying through the scriptures to find God might also be described as following a star or a light of a certain kind. Psalm 19.8 describes the teaching of God as ‘radiant, giving light to the eyes’, and again ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Psalm 119.105; see also Proverbs 6.23). Thus, like the wise men’s star, these words lead us forward revealing the way to the light of life.

There are many practical ways in which this may be apparent but first it must be said that committing to reading the Bible is a vital step forward. Although the Bible is not God, and an idol must not be made of it; the divine-human relationships recorded by authors inspired by the Holy Spirit can certainly lead us to a greater understanding of the divine character alongside a deeper and more vivid experience of God. Looking at how others have responded to God (and how God has responded to them) in various instances helps to place oneself into the on-going biblical story as it becomes apparent that, although separated by thousands of years, different languages and cultures; there are numerous commonalities in how a relationship with God may be expressed and experienced.

o You might be inclined to take time over a short passage of scripture, reading several times and reflecting deeply on the words and what they mean to you personally in that moment.

o If a biblical narrative reminds you of something you have read previously in the scriptures, follow-up on that connection and make a note of it. Where did you read that word before? When was there similar characters? Where was there a similar message?

o Try to remain with the discomfort of reading a biblical passage that you do not understand immediately, or that makes you question the actions of God and other characters. Let this tension lead you to reflect upon what you believe to be the character of God and the required actions/attitude of the people of God today. How might what you have read in the Bible fit into these ideas – maybe it does not fit at all!

These types of practices get us used to entering the world of scripture. Over time we will find ourselves recalling biblical events in connection with our contemporary lives. We will find our life experience becomes somehow intertwined with the biblical narrative the more time we spend there. And this is when God begins to meet us, and we meet God, when we take the time to seek, when our lived reality meets the scripture’s living truth guiding us towards God*.

The wise men found what they were searching for – they had their epiphany – by following a light that led to the true light. Our experiences of a lifetime of faith involve many seasons of feeling both the divine presence and hiddenness. Searching the scriptures can help us to locate God, especially in those dry times when God feels hidden from us. And there, by entering the ongoing biblical story which tells of myriad divine-human interactions, we may have our own epiphany, bowing in worship before Christ the Word made flesh in the great realisation that the one whom we have sought has been with us all along.

 
*I borrowed this phrase from Serene Jones, ‘Inhabiting Scripture, Dreaming Bible’ in W. P. Brown (ed.) Engaging Biblical Authority (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 78.

An audio version of this reflection can be found here:

Luke 2.41-52: Deconstructing and Reconstructing Christian Experience

In chapter two of Luke’s Gospel Jesus’ parents lose their twelve-year-old son on the journey home from Jerusalem only to discover him after three days of anxious searching in the Temple. Jesus’ famous words to his parents – ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (2.49) – set us up to recognise that, years before his baptism, Jesus understood something of who he was. The boy was a delight to the Temple teachers as he listened to them, asking questions and displaying insight (2.47). It might not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that perhaps those Temple teachers saw something of a great teacher in the making in this most unusual boy.

On receiving their son back from his ‘Father’s house’, Jesus’ parents escorted the boy back home to Nazareth where he was obedient to them. Mary is said to have treasured all these things (- presumably everything that has happened so far: the visitation from Gabriel, the Bethlehem episode with the shepherds, the prophecies of Simeon and Anna, etc.) in her heart (2.51). And as for Jesus, ‘he grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and humanity’ (2.52).

It is interesting to consider how the enquiring mind of the pre-teen Jesus brought delight to the Temple teachers, while his questions and challenges when later proclaiming the kingdom of God brought a growing frustration with eventual tragic consequences: ‘Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him’ (Luke 19.47).

Similarly, Jesus’ obedience and Mary’s treasuring ‘these things’, also took a very different turn when, for example, the family visit Jesus while he is teaching and he states: ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice’ (Luke 8.21). And later, ‘a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you’, [Jesus] replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it’,’ (Luke 11.47-48). While, of course, these words can be read different ways, it must be said that Jesus appears to be distancing himself from biological family ties to connect with the work of God.

This point about hearing the word of God and obeying it is crucial. Following his baptism and forty days in the wilderness, Jesus arrived with the message, repent for the kingdom of God is near (Mark 1.15) – in other words, Change your mind! Rethink! God is active among us! Everything that Jesus did from that point on was that which he felt God was prompting him to do: ‘the son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing’ (John 5.19). And this utter commitment to the divine will brought Jesus into conflict with people – those whom he had once delighted, the teachers and his own family. Even his closest disciples found cause to be upset by Jesus’ commitment to the divine will in his words and actions (e.g. Mark 8.32; John 6.60-69).

There is something important here that seems to relate to, what I might term as Jesus’ coming of age. I wonder if it may be useful to think of our experiences in a similar way. In the past we may have delighted our church leaders, our Christian communities, with the gifts that we brought into the church. The use of these gifts such as preaching, leading small groups or young church, assisting with music, and many other faithful expressions of service, might be a form of obedience to our church ‘parents’. And yet…

And yet as we come of age spiritually, a sense of disquiet often develops, closely related to the way in which our day-to-day lives and our Christian faith are no longer able to correlate as perhaps they once did when things were more straightforward. Ronald Rolheiser has expressed this excellently in Sacred Fire* where he describes the stage in life where we are ‘living for others’ (e.g. our children, our aging parents) and dealing with the many pressures of owning a home, needing to work to feed the family and pay the bills; bring about certain challenges not apparent in earlier years when we were trying to find ourselves and discover what our life was going to entail. I suggest that having to ‘live for others’ every day can cause severe examination of elements of life that may be deemed unnecessary. As such one’s Christian faith, at least in the form it existed before, is in danger!

In response to the actual, realities of life, such as dealing with a teenager who actively makes the wrong choices, heartbreaks like cancer or dementia or both forcing their way amongst family or friends, disillusionment with the roundabout of politicians and wars – the religious practices and beliefs we have previously held so dear, can become meaningless. As a result, we tend to just stick with it and go through the motions of church attendance and ministry activity because after all, ‘we are a Christian family and that’s what we do’. Or we deconstruct the faith.

A deconstructed Christianity can be described as follows: a process of taking apart the elements of Christian religious expression by which an individual had previously defined themselves.

This process of deconstruction can happen subtly, it need not be something we actively engage in. We may not realise that anything is wrong for a long time. Rather, certain life experiences cause us to question what we now perceive as Christian platitudes. We find ourselves underwhelmed and then opposed to the lyrical content of the hymns and choruses sung in church. We begin to wonder how important it is to acknowledge an actual resurrection of Jesus Christ. And so on…

The details come in various forms, but the process takes some months or even perhaps years until the resultant deconstructed Christianity bears little resemblance to the faith we once knew. Or any faith at all. It is a very lonely experience. For instance, it is the case that many books exploring the kinds of issues I mentioned above, are written by authors who ultimately arrive at a place of saying no, you do not need to believe in such-and-such to be a ‘Christian’, or no, it is not necessary to attend church services, or pray, or engage in any spiritual disciplines to be a ‘Christian’. And with Christians around us appearing so sure of their faith and comforted by their beliefs, there is no one to turn to – I mean really turn to – so we are left alone to become some sort of friend of the faith or perhaps (please, no..!) post-Christian!

But the joy and the mystery comes in the way that God does not leave us in that sorry state. There has been more at play than we realise, almost as though we have been through our own baptism and forty days in the wilderness. I think that at some point, prompted by the divine Spirit, we begin to reconstruct what had been broken into pieces. To be clear though, what we cannot do is carry on as we were or go back. We must instead, reconstruct our faith!

A reconstructed Christianity will be different by necessity. It is important to acknowledge how the process of deconstruction has shaped where we now stand. That is, the issues that caused us to question and doubt were real life issues that perhaps cannot be solved by a reassuring Bible verse or a Church leader’s pastoral pat on the shoulder. There will also continue to be real life issues to trouble us, so if our faith is to shape our lives from this point on it must be able to actually help us as we go through the days.

I think this reconstructed Christianity is a possibility for us but we have to become comfortable with approaching faith and belief differently than we did before. And for many Christians who have not experienced the deconstruction process, this causes significant worry. Hence, we do not always find a comfortable home within the church. This is why we annoy people – because we are asking too many questions, we are wanting to perhaps read a biblical passage from the opposite way around.

And this is why I find Luke 2.41-52 so helpful for an articulation of reconstructing Christianity. It describes to me something of what it looks like when we go from fitting in, even perhaps to the point of being impressive with our gifts used for the church, to a place of stirring things up by attempting to express that faith in completely different ways. A lot of it remains the same. We still read the Bible and pray and (try to) walk in the way of Jesus Christ, but there is something different in the way these actions and attitudes are now attempted which may be described as being ‘shrewd and snakes and innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10.16).

Returning to Jesus’ own kingdom announcement – repent for the kingdom of God is near – God’s presence and activity involves change. Recall the one seated on the throne who says: ‘I am making all things new’ (Rev. 21.5). This suggests something incredibly powerful and at the same time mysterious about the deconstruction/reconstruction process I have tried to articulate. It suggests divine involvement in an on-going faith story which can be painful and confusing, even to the point of feeling as though the presence of God is lost to us. The attempts we make to hear the voice and God and obey it may naturally bring us into conflict with others whose faith story is taking shape at a different rate. Balancing real life experiences with those of religious faith causes us to repent, that is, to change our minds about certain facts of faith that once appeared foundational, but now seem up for debate. The foundational elements of faith are simply that the trinitarian God is, and that God is active among us.

So, we have come of age. What might our Christian faith look like from now on?

 

 
*R. Rolheiser (2015) Sacred Fire. New York: Image.

Advent Reflection 2: Is King Herod just another ‘obtuse foreign ruler’?

There is a biblical tradition portraying foreign kings as irrational and foolish, usually with an over-inflated ego which eventually causes their downfall or at least, enables Jewish victory in the narrative. We might think of the Persian Ahasuerus from the book of Esther and Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar from the book of Daniel as good examples of this rather comical presentation of what Athalya Brenner has called the ‘obtuse foreign ruler’.* It has occurred to me as I reflect on this Advent season that perhaps Matthew dips into this particular biblical heritage in his presentation of King Herod (see Matthew 2)

A crucial feature of the ‘obtuse foreign ruler’ in the Bible is an unfortunate tendency to lose control of their emotions. Recall Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction to three individuals’ refusal to bow down to his golden statue. Daniel 3.13 reports a ‘furious rage’ leading the king to put Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the fiery furnace. An Assyrian ruler also named Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Judith swears by his kingdom and his throne to take revenge on the surrounding territories following their refusal to side with him (Judith 1.1-12). Meanwhile, in Esther, King Ahasuerus becomes enraged, ‘his anger burning within him’ at his queen’s refusal to come when called (1.12) and is later in a state of ‘wrath’ over events that he cannot control (Esther 7.7). This is also a feature of extra-biblical text 4 Maccabees where the Jewish martyrs are shown in a greater light than the ‘tyrant’ ruler Antiochus because of their ‘devout reason’ (e.g. 4 Macc. 4.31) and his lack of control over his anger (4 Macc. 8.2; 9.10; 10.5).

In Matthew 2.16 when Herod sees that he has been tricked by the wise men (who he had attempted to trick into providing him with the whereabouts of the baby Jesus – Matt. 2.8) he is infuriated. And his great anger causes him to take action – action which we might describe as completely irrational: the murder of all the boys aged two and below in the area around Bethlehem. Surely there was a more effective manner of seeking out baby Jesus. Herod had been told about the Bethlehem prophecy; was there no one who might simply be asked about the arrival of these wise men in the town and/or the mysterious star hovering over the house where the baby was born? Of course, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus had fled to Egypt by that time anyway (Matt. 2.13-15), but even so…

But then, acting irrationally is what these ‘obtuse foreign rulers’ do. The obvious comparison here is with Pharaoh attempting to control the population of Israelite slaves by having the young boys killed and thrown in the Nile (Exodus 1.8-22). Nebuchadnezzar and Ahasuerus are also portrayed making all sorts of irrational decisions. And this leads to the key conclusion that although a monarch, these rulers are perhaps not really in charge of anything and can be easily defeated or manipulated. In Exodus for instance, Pharaoh is famously undermined by the midwives, Moses’ mother and sister, as well as his own daughter (Ex. 1.15-2.10). While Ahasuerus is skilfully manipulated first by Haman (Est. 3.8) and then Esther (Est. 7.1-8). And similarly, Herod is easily dealt with by the divine guidance given in dreams which lead both wise men and Jesus’ family out of the king’s reach.

This makes for great comic effect when reading from an ‘us and them’ perspective. We understand the heroes and villains of the story and can thus easily mock these foolish foreign rulers who are not like us! It is laughable for instance that Darius is so easily duped by his administrators in Daniel 6 so that Daniel can be caught in the act of praying illegally. Of course, Darius does not know what has been going on, and the administrators, having observed Daniel in prayer, go straight to inform the king (Dan. 6.11). Similarly, Holofernes, so full of pride, cannot imagine for a second that Judith is deceiving him until it is too late and in a drunken stupor, he has his head cut off and put in a food sack (see Judith 10-13). And of course, crucially, Herod does not know what we expect him, as king of the Jews, to know.

Here, Matthew 2.1-6 is very revealing. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, but the wise men follow the star and head to Jerusalem. Perfectly natural: unusual star = royal birth = head to a major city! We are not to judge the wise men here, they are acceptable foreign characters on a journey to the Christ whom they will bow down and worship. The problem then, is not that the wise men suppose that the king they are seeking will be in Jerusalem, but that Herod is there instead of celebrating the new birth and worshipping the Christ in Bethlehem. Herod is in the wrong place and when asked, he cannot help the wise men but must call in the advisors, the priests, etc., who do know without hesitation: Bethlehem is the place where the Christ is born!

It is to be assumed that from Matthew’s perspective, Christ’s being born in Bethlehem, the town of David, was just something everyone knew – especially if you were king of the Jews. The fact that Herod does not know, and is in the wrong place, and fears for the security of his position, and then loses his temper with disastrous results for the young boys of Bethlehem, puts this particular king firmly in the line of other infamous foreign rulers portrayed in the Bible. He is incompetent and his rule over the people of God is illegitimate in the face of the coming king Jesus.

Such rulers are there to be mocked for their foolish ways, but they also present a very serious note of caution for readers of the Bible that life lived under an ‘obtuse foreign ruler’ is dangerous. A lack of self-control, and the ease with which they can be manipulated and be led towards irrational decisions, when coupled with the ultimate power they wield, was, and continues to be in our own day, a frightening prospect whether those having power over us are ‘foreign rulers’ or not.

Final note…although Herod was ruler of Judea, he is a perfect candidate for the ‘obtuse foreign ruler’. His grandfather had converted to Judaism, his father had supported the Roman capture of Jerusalem. Herod is said to have completed the building of the second temple to please the Jews under his rule in Judea, whilst also sacrificing to the god Jupiter to please the Romans. Although there is no extra-biblical evidence for his killing the baby boys, it fits with other heinous acts that are known such as his murdering his wife, brother-in-law and sons. Apparently, such actions led to this comment by one of Herod’s peers: better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons! Get the joke? Funny!

 
*A. Brenner (1994) ‘Who’s Afraid of Feminist Criticism? Who’s Afraid of Biblical Humour? The Case of the Obtuse Foreign Ruler in the Hebrew Bible’. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. vol. 63. 38-55.

Advent Reflection 1 (with some help from Julian of Norwich)

Late in the fourteenth century, Christian mystic Julian of Norwich had a series of sixteen ‘showings’ (visions) which have been recorded as her Revelations of Divine Love. These have been a source of inspiration for Christians through the centuries. Early in the Revelations, Julian is shown a vision of Mary, mother of Christ, which provides an incredible insight for our contemporary appreciation of the annunciation.

I saw her spiritually in bodily likeness, a meek and simple maid, young – little more than a child, of the same bodily form as when she conceived. God also showed me part of the wisdom and truth of her soul, so that I understood with what reverence she beheld her God and Maker, and how reverently she marvelled that he chose to be born of her, a simple creature of his own making. And this wisdom and faithfulness, knowing as she did the greatness of her Maker and the littleness of her who was made, moved her to say very humbly to Gabriel, ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord’

Here, Julian gives information that is familiar to us if we have been around Christianity for any length of time: Mary was ‘little more than a child’ when receiving word that she, herself, would be carrying a child. We often hear in sermons that Mary would have been around age thirteen or fourteen when pledged to be married to the, much older, Joseph. But I think the point to be drawn out here is not that Mary was physically ‘little more than a child’, but that she was childlike in the way spoken about by Jesus.

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18.2-4).

For Jesus, such a childlike position of humility is crucial to entering the kingdom of heaven, and it seems, crucial also in Julian’s understanding of Mary. Shown ‘part of the wisdom and truth of [Mary’s] soul’, Julian grasps how she had a correct appreciation of her own ‘littleness’ in comparison to the magnitude of God her creator. For Mary, faced with an angel speaking the divine word, her childlike humility came with enhanced wisdom to truly comprehend, in that momentous visitation, the immensity of what was occurring.

That which Mary understood and reverently marvelled at, is nestled in the centre of Julian’s vision: ‘that he chose to be born of her, a simple creature of his own making’.

This truly is a mind-blowing concept that can begin to be appreciated only when we ourselves believe that God is Trinity existing in beautiful relationship before the creation of the world. Without this fundamental Christian belief, the great insight of Julian makes little sense. For if, when speaking of God, we mean only the one traditionally referred to as Father, to suggest he chose to be born of Mary is ludicrous. But Julian has a deep sense of God in three persons: the parent, the Christ and the Spirit, intrinsic to each other in relationship. And of course, God as Trinity is present in Luke’s Gospel at the moment when the angel visits Mary, saying to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’ (Lk. 1.35). Only when trying to understand and live out the implications of such a massive concept as the Trinity can we then pause and marvel at Julian’s words: ‘that he chose to be born of her, a simple creature of his own making’.

A question immediately presenting itself is, why was she, and not someone else, chosen? Perhaps because God ‘looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant’ (Lk. 1.48). Recognising her own lowliness, like that of a child later idealised in the words of Jesus, caused Mary to truly appreciate the relationship between herself as a human being and God, the Holy Trinity. Understanding the vast difference existing between Creator and creature, enabled Mary to say her famous ‘Yes’, and then step into her role as the bridge between human and divine, carrying the one who would be called the Son of God, giving birth to him, and being a caring maternal presence through his life on earth.

From these reflections, there is a very real point of application for us during this time of Advent as we again wait for the coming of Christ. This point is as old as it is forever brand new. And it is a truth for any and all people:

God has chosen US.

Imagine God as Creator. Try to picture in your mind the divine acts of creation beginning billions of years ago, and that are on-going and eternal. Consider that with each passing year, new discoveries are made about our planet, the stars, galaxies and the vastness of space that, from a religious perspective speak of the immensity of God the Creator.

Now reflect upon your own story with God. There are as many stories as there are people. Many ways of seeking God or being sought by God. Many times when we have lost God and then found God in a very different way than before. But, in all of this we might ask with the Psalm 8.3-4:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
the moon and the stars you set in place—
what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
human beings that you should care for them?

Or more personally, ‘what am I, that you, God, Creator of all, come into my life?’

Becoming more aware of our own small stature in comparison with God is not an exercise is beating ourselves up or making ourselves feel bad. Rather, following in the footsteps of Mary, it is an exercise in the great and childlike humility that enables us all to appreciate who we truly are in relation to God and, by welcoming this type of humble understanding, we might just respond positively when we, in a manner of speaking, feel the shadow of the Most High overshadowing us. For, as much as God has chosen each one of us, it seems that God also chooses to be born of us.

This mystery moves us from the potentially static position of appreciating God’s choosing us and asking, ‘what am I…?’, to a place of action. In the New Testament, St Paul urges the churches again and again to actively live out their faith: pursuing holiness, seeking peace with other, and so on, by asking them, ‘Do you not realise that Jesus Christ is in you?’ (2 Cor. 13.5) and ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple […like a house/dwelling place] of the Holy Spirit?’ (1 Cor. 6.19). The indwelling of God within us must be born time and again, impacting the lives of those in our communities. Thus, we might think of Jesus’ words: ‘whoever does the will of my father is my mother…’ (Matthew 12.50). That is, when we love our neighbour, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, show mercy, and show forgiveness, the divine which has been placed within us is birthed. Just as a pregnancy is meant to lead to a birth and new life, the indwelling of God within us is intended to bring life.

Advent seems to be the perfect opportunity to reflect on such mysteries as it is a time of waiting. We might take the opportunity to reflect upon the ways in which we carry God within us and how, with the coming birth of Jesus at Christmas, new life might be born of us, both personally and in our communities. The starting point, as in Julian’s vision of Mary, is a drawing close to God, a simple stillness in the divine presence so as to truly appreciate with childlike humility one’s own small stature compared with God. Indeed, for Julian of Norwich, it is this initial position of ‘beholding and loving our Maker [which] makes the soul see itself as most puny, and most fills it with reverent awe and true meekness, with abundance of love for its fellow Christians’.

Yes, and with the divine dwelling and growing within us, let us try to extend that abundance of love to all who come our way.